Love, Time, and Travel in the ‘Before’ Trilogy

Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is a collection of three movies–Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight–that tell the love story of an American man, Jesse, and a French woman, Celine, throughout eighteen years of their lives and through beautiful locations across the world. The movies are distinctive for being almost exclusively made up of dialogue between the two protagonists, as well as for the breathtaking backgrounds to these conversations: Vienna, Paris, and Pylos. As we follow Celine and Jesse through the phases of their relationship and through the streets and corners of remarkable cities around the world, it often feels as if we are walking around them ourselves, quietly listening to conversations about  love, life, and death that are not ours, but nevertheless feel so familiar that it seems they easily could have been. 

Each of the movies exceptionally captures the particularities of the phases of life and relationships, while at the same time cleverly using the cities not only as backgrounds, but as quiet metaphors that never fail to make us understand what the protagonists feel as they walk through them. 

Before Sunrise (1995): Vienna, Austria 

In the first movie of the trilogy, Celine and Jesse are strangers who meet on a train and impulsively decide to spend the night walking around Vienna. The capital of Austria is filled with remarkable settings for a movie that discusses the greatness of matters such as life and death, and the oldness of the constructions constantly contrast the newborn relationship of the couple in a way that is subtle but nevertheless essential to the atmosphere of the story. Despite being strangers to each other, the fact that they are in a place where no one knows them and they know no one brings Celine and Jesse closer, as it creates a feeling of specialness and uniqueness around the moments they are sharing–a feeling that those few hours they have together until the sun rises belong only to the two of them. It is the fact that they are strangers, to each other and to the city, that makes it so easy to be absolutely and completely honest, which ultimately is what makes their relationship so special and abiding through the years.


Before Sunset (2004): Paris, France

In the sophomore movie of the trilogy, after almost a decade without seeing each other, Celine and Jesse meet again and reminisce about what was and what could have been. This time, the setting is Paris–and an essential difference is that this is where Celine lives; the fact that she is so familiar with every corner they walk through while Jesse is just visiting for the afternoon reflects the changes in their relationship in a quiet though precise way. There is a distance between the protagonists; the bubble of newness and excitement that existed in the first movie has burst. The two are no longer strangers to each other, and the magic and freedom of being strangers to where they are is gone as well. They can’t avoid the lives they have outside of their relationship anymore, and the illusion of youth, of being the only people alive in the whole world, sharing every feeling and every thought with only one another, is unmanageable after they begin to grow up. Nevertheless, they are still in astounding Paris, and it is undeniable that, in this more real, more honest version of their relationship, there is still remarkable beauty.

Before Midnight (2012): Pylos, Greece

The last installment of Celine and Jesse’s story is set eight years after the second one (and eighteen after the first one), and follows them on the last day of a summer family trip to Greece. Now together for years and the furthest possible thing from strangers, the two spend their last night away reflecting on their relationship and the lives they built together. What’s different about this time is that the beautiful place they are in isn’t the escape in which they find comfort away from their real lives and in each other; when tomorrow comes, they will go home to the life they share, not to a world away from each other. The magic of finding a loophole in the reality of growing up has faded–but the love remains. Another interesting detail about Pylos is that, unlike the other two movies, they have been there for an entire summer; the newness that was so present and unique in the first movie is gone too. The most real of the trilogy, Before Midnight is an honest depiction of how love inevitably changes and evolves in long term relationships, and the ancient constructions of Greece are the perfect metaphor for the love that, just like their beauty, remains despite the years and cracked edges that are bound to happen as life goes by.

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