I Watched All Three Before Sunrise Movies in One Day

A trilogy of films about time and space, taken in with little time and space.

Is there a word for the movies that sit in your Netflix queue for years? For me, most of these films are aspirational. Among them are a silent classics, foreign films, and a handful of documentaries. I can see why I’ve put them off. When I’m settling down to watch Netflix after a long day of work, the last thing I want to do is watch a two-part, four-hour French gangster movie.

But the one surprise queue staple has been Before Sunrise. I knew it was talk-y, and despite it being considered a modern classic, a constant recommendation from friends, and my having seen nearly everything else directed by Richard Linklater, I somehow put it off until the superlative reviews started coming in for the series’ third film, Before Midnight.

Here’s the set up of Before Sunrise for the uninitiated (a group to which I was a member until about a week ago): a college-aged American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets a cute French girl named Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train from Budapest to Paris. They hit it off, and on a whim, Jessie asks Celine if she wants to get off the train early to spend the evening walking around Vienna before his early morning flight back to the U.S. She agrees and the two walk and talk the whole night, living out the perfect spontaneous romance. The two don’t see each other again for another nine years, which is where the second film, Before Sunset, picks up. Jesse has arrived in Paris on tour for his new novel, which fictionalizes his first encounter with Celine in Vienna. The two reconnect, and the extraordinary last scene leaves the viewer with the promise that Jesse and Celine have finally gotten together.

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I watched both films back to back (I even purchased them on iTunes, since they were no longer available for streaming on Netflix). After I finished Sunset, I immediately bought a ticket for Before Midnight for later that evening.

If Sunrise is about the idealism of romance, Sunset grounds Jesse and Celine’s love as a decision they both have to make. Before Midnight, easily the most different of the three, is about the consequences of those choices. The opening scene of Midnight takes place in southern Greece, as Jesse is saying a goodbye to his adolescent son, about to board a flight back to Chicago to live with Jesse’s ex-wife. He returns to the car, where Celine is waiting with his twin daughters. The two are obviously still in love, but they look tired now — not just in age, but from carrying the weight of parental exhaustion, smothered professional ambitions, and a whole lot of regret.

The climax of Midnight is a devastating argument that takes place in a hotel room. The room appears claustrophobic compared to the open-air promenades that we are so used to seeing Jesse and Celine strolling about. Friends have offered to babysit the kids that evening so Jesse and Celine can have some intimate alone time, but forcing romance seems to be the problem (mid-fight, Celine screams “What the fuck is a couple’s massage?”). The dialogue here is masterful, and though I haven’t been married or had kids, there was something uncomfortably familiar about seeing the cruelest side of yourself come out in an argument.

But as much as these films are about the arc of Jesse and Celine’s relationship, they are focused on the passage of time. Real-time is one of the most interesting features of the Before trilogy. The gaps between when the films were released — 1995, 2004, and this year — are reflected in the characters’ ages in the movies. (In some ways, it operates like the Up documentary series, which has followed the lives of people over 56 years, with a new film every seven years.) Sunset is the only one of the three that is in true real-time, in that every second is accounted for in the movie. Midnight returns to a looser structure but is more invested thematically in the past and future.

At the beginning, Jesse and Celine bicker a bit, and the sweeter moments are nostalgic conversations. Celine asks, “If we were meeting today for the first time on a train… Would you start talking to me? Would you ask me to get off the train with you?” (In a lot of ways, though, the reminiscence was a bit lost on me, having seen the exact moment they were talking about only hours earlier that day.) Another discussion is provoked by Celine asking, “If we’re going to spend another 56 years together, what about me would you like to change?”

Midnight also has a lot to say about technology and how it’s affected our romantic relationships. At a dinner with other writerly friends, they discuss how one day there might be a Deep Blue equivalent that can write better novels than a human. A young Greek couple — a sort of foil for Sunrise-age Jesse and Celine — talk about how they’ve maintained a long-distance relationship using Skype. The subtext here questions whether the nine years apart between the first two films solidified Jesse and Celine’s love, and whether a situation like theirs could exist today, in a world where communication technology is so pervasive.

My viewing experience also made me acutely aware of how convenient the internet has made things. It’s sort of extraordinary that I was able to watch these movies in a 24-hour period — just summon the first two through iTunes, then look up movie times on Google and purchase a ticket online through Fandango. The convenience and immediacy of the internet is obvious, but always impressive.

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After returning home from Before Midnight (right around midnight, actually), I read a handful of reviews online. One review by Ryan Gilbey for the New Statesmen stuck out:

I was 23 when I saw Before Sunrise. I’d been writing professionally about cinema and music for just over a year. (One of my earliest jobs was to review a gig by a promising new band called Oasis. Whatever happened to them?) Before Sunrise was my first assignment as a lead critic on the now-defunct Premiere magazine. I took the review in to the office on a floppy disk, email being almost as exotic as silver-foil jumpsuits and meals in pill form.

In personal terms, Before Sunrise will always have an additional piercing resonance for me, since I watched it a month before I separated from the mother of my first two children. As for why we broke up – well, Jesse puts those things better than I ever could. (Strangely, I also saw Before Midnight shortly after the end of my most recent relationship. The lesson being, I suppose, that the Before movies are a terrible jinx, or that I am.) But if you were in the right place at the right time when you saw these films, then it is possible that they represent for you, as they do for me, something unique in cinema: a stroll down someone else’s memory lane that has striking intersections with your own.

Sunset and Midnight are not merely sequels, but also give their predecessors new, retrospective significance. The films seem to have given a similar reflective power on remarkable moments in Gilbey’s own life. I realized that this was something the internet could never give me: the experience of having seen the films in different stages of my life. The internet is so good at collapsing time and space into the present, but it can never create them. For Gilbey, each Before film was grounded to a specific memory of that time in his life. For me, each movie will only ever remind me of the same caffeine-soaked Sunday afternoon.

Though I’ve come to the Before Sunrise films late, at least I’m a part of the experience now. I wonder if Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy will be in for a fourth movie in 2022; in the meantime, I’ll be hoping and waiting for it.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.