“Before” trilogy enhances the art of romantic storytelling

While the first film came out in the ’90s, The “Before” Trilogy has remained relevant today and provides a glimpse of hope that romance is not dead—at least not in these heart-warming films. / Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

In the latest installment of Lucy-watches-things-that-came-out-years-ago-that-no-longer-need-reviewing, I decided to check out The “Before” Trilogy. I know, “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” all sound like the titles of 99-cent romance novels you can pick up at CVS along with eyedrops and a Claritin refill, but they’re actually really good.

Directed by Richard Linklater, The “Before” Trilogy follows the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), who meet on a train headed to Paris in 1994. The films cover the intersection of their lives every nine years, each creating a little window into the evolution of Jesse and Céline over a nearly 20-year span as the world also changes around them.

Filmed every nine years, they are the tiniest epics you’ll ever watch, but they make up for it in its heartwarming sentimentality. The most recent installment, “Before Midnight,” was released in 2013, when the pair have just reached their forties.

I never thought much about Richard Linklater—the guy who directed “School of Rock,” the “Bad News Bears” reboot and, oh yeah, “Boyhood”—until I saw these films. There were parts of “Boyhood” I liked, but a lot that fell flat. He seemed to be reaching towards something great, but never quite getting there. The “Before” Trilogy is that something.

All of the deep, meaningful conversations that failed to land in “Boyhood” work beautifully in The “Before” Trilogy. Each film involves lots of wandering around elegant European cities and talking romantically to one another, but the dialogue never delves into the pretentious nature of many romance films.

Conversations are entirely natural and delivered through exquisite performances by Hawke and Delpy, who carry the films as the series’ only consistent characters. Their chemistry together is some of the best I’ve ever seen onscreen. In a rare few moments when the conversations reach a standstill, Linklater lets the camera hold on their wordless interactions: listening to a Kath Bloom song in a listening booth in Vienna or walking up a creaky staircase in Paris. The tension is tangible and it’s absolutely riveting to watch.

The collaboration between filmmaker and actors is probably the secret behind these masterpieces of romantic cinema. Besides the first film, which had a basic outline of a screenplay going in, each film is co-written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy. Their collaboration makes the dialogue soar, with each story flowing effortlessly into the next until you’re collapsed in puddle on the floor weeping inconsolably. Note: I was one of those weeping last weekend, and no I am not at all ashamed.

The second of the trilogy, “Before Sunset,” occurs almost in real time, with long takes that evoke theater rather than the choppiness of modern cinema. Even though each film is a snapshot of their much greater and more complicated lives, you understand and feel for these characters. Even though your collective time together only spans a few hours, you feel like you’ve known them your entire life and are deeply tied to every single action, every single heartbreak.

[SIDE NOTE: Like the “Before” films, my life has also intersected with Ethan Hawke in strange and mysterious ways. In 2013 I saw him play Macbeth at Lincoln Center. A few years later I ate lunch next to him in the Retreat. I don’t know what Ethan Hawke was doing at Vassar, but a few weeks later I saw him again on TV. At the Oscars. He had just been nominated in the category of Best Supporting Actor for “Boyhood.” I thought then that was the end of our lives intersecting but after watching these films I was wrong. If you’re reading this, Ethan, I think we’re meant to be. Feel free to email The Miscellany News for my contact info. I’m a big fan].

Perhaps the key to these films is their ability to transcend the overdone, schmaltzy stereotypes of the mainstream romantic movie genre. In a world full of Nicholas Sparks-esque romances, these films are often so gooey and oversaturated with sentimentality that you leave the theater wanting to throw up rather than go looking for the love of your life.

The issue with romance movies nowadays is that they’re afraid to talk about anything other than romance. The best of romantic dramas are about more than just finding “the one.” They talk about life. Your times together as well as apart, and what that other person can do to make your lives together just a little bit better.

In the first film, Jesse and Céline are reaching the end of their (presumably only) night together, and Céline says, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.”

These films aren’t looking to create some perfect love story—the films barely have a plot to begin with—but rather to show what it means to really get to know someone, and the importance of that connection with others. It’s real, it’s gritty and it doesn’t hold back.

Maybe it’s because I’m about to go abroad and the thought of meeting a stranger on a train in some idyllic European city sounds kind of nice, but these movies are just really good. They’ve changed the way I think about meeting people, or telling stories in general.

In a world full of social networking apps and asking people on a date through a Facebook message, this gives me some semblance of hope that true romance is not yet dead. And if you need another recommendation, an anonymous source tells me, “When did Ethan Hawke become hot?? This movie [“Before Sunrise”]. That’s when.”

Go pour yourself a glass of wine, grab a box of tissues and get ready for the heterosexual tears to flow.

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