R Dir: Richard Linklater | Criterion | 4h 50min
Plot: What’s it about?
I want to preface this review by saying that I chose to review all of these movies as a whole. Yes, the fact that they’re in a box set would make it seem logical, but while these films do stand on their own, I feel it’s only fitting for them to be reviewed as a whole. And as I look back on my life and that of Jesse and Céline, there are more than a few parallels in my world and theirs. I’ve always looked at Ethan Hawke more as a “peer” if you will. We’re roughly the same age and these movies epitomize what’s been going on in life. Not my life or his, just…life. No, I’ve never been to Vienna and wandered around only to meet the perfect girl and talk all night, but part of the beauty of these movies is that each is a timestamp for a part of their lives – the actor’s lives and, a little, of my own. If, for some reason you’ve never seen any one of these movies, I have to assume that there’s more than a passing interest (else you wouldn’t be reading this). So walk, don’t run, and pick up a copy of Before Sunset. It’s the best of the three, but you will not be let down by the “sequels” (quotes used intentionally). Start there and experience the journey that Jesse and Céline are about to take.
Looking at this set as a whole, I can’t praise Criterion enough. They’re big fans of director Richard Linklater, having released most of his films as a part of their collection. The Before trilogy has been long awaited and, believe it or not, this is the first time that the first two films have seen the Blu-ray format. And I know there’s a particular member of my review staff that has even more of an affinity for these movies than I do (if that’s possible). I won’t prattle on with my words, you’ll get plenty of dialogue once all three movies have run their course. So without further ado, I present to you the Before trilogy.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play Jesse and Céline respectively. He’s been riding the Eurorail after saving up his money that Spring to go visit his girlfriend. After a few days, he gets the hint that she has moved on and he gets a cheaper flight and has seen the European countryside through the window of a train. He’s on his way to Vienna where his flight will leave the next day, only to meet Céline by accident. They begin to talk about life, love and everything in between when he persuades her to get off the train and continue their discussion while wandering the streets of Vienna. “I don’t have enough for a hotel room” he says “so I planned to wander the streets of Vienna”. She reluctantly accepts (though we learn later that she wanted to all along) and a beautiful friendship starts to form. The upside to this is that the two have each other, but the downside being it’s only for one night. She’s back on her way to the Sorbonne in Paris and it’s likely that the two will never see each other again after their night together. This is a point brought up in perhaps the most emotional moment of the movie.
What’s so great about the film is that the characters make it work. How many times in life have we looked back and said “I wonder what would have happened if…”. Well, these two seem to know what they have and have the instinct to go with their feelings. We know that no matter how good something is, nothing lasts forever and neither does this night. No matter who you’re with and how much you enjoy their company, the clock ticks the same for every living thing. As the night begins to turn in to day, we don’t want the characters to leave each other. They don’t want to leave each other. They kiss. They have sex. They converse on the same ferris wheel that Joesph Cotten and Orson Welles did in “The Third Man”. Truly, as an audience member, we can see that these two have something, but do they want to pursue it? He lives in America and she in Paris and by her own admission is afraid of flying (which is why she took the train back to Paris). This is truly a gem and worthy of any collection.
Fans of the movie Before Sunrise were in for a great treat when Before Sunset came out. The previous was a little-seen, but very well made movie starring Ethan Hawke (still in his “grunge” mode) and French actress Julie Delpy. It explored the brief relationship between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) as they casually meet on a train and go onto chat the night away while wandering the streets of Vienna. It had a certain charm to it that audiences and critics loved and “Before Sunset” (the unofficial sequel?) has more of it. Lest we not forget that the man behind the camera is Richard Linklater, who hasn’t really produced too many duds. One of his few might be his most mainstream effort, The Newton Boys (also starring Hawke, Matthew McConaughey, Vincent D’Onofrio and Skeet Ulrich) which seemed to lack a good storyline and was essentially not entertaining. Linklater made a name for himself with Slacker, a 1990 film which really jump started the Independent Film Movement of the 1990’s (Kevin Smith cites it as the reason he became a filmmaker) and the movie that really got him noticed was Dazed and Confused starring an undiscovered Ben Affleck, McConaughey and Parker Posey. There’s no real way around it when I say that if Before Sunrise was up your alley, so will Before Sunset. Both are extremely dialogue-driven and it’s rare that a sequel is considered to be just as good (or better) than the original.
That said, Before Sunset takes up 9 years after Jesse and Céline shared their romantic evening together. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has written a book about the night, but has managed to get on with his life (he’s married with a child). Those familiar with the ending of Before Sunrise will recall that Jesse and Céline were supposed to meet back up at the Vienna train station six months after their encounter (December 18) and without revealing too much; let’s just say that one made it and one didn’t. Céline spots Jesse at a Paris bookstore (Paris is Céline home), where Jesse is wrapping up a book tour. The two instantly recognize each other, take up right where they left off and start the process of catching up. The title has a bit of foreshadowing in it as Jesse has a plane to catch and must be at the airport by 7:30. He wants to spend as much time as he can talking to Celine and, though several subtle actions, we can tell that the two still mean a lot to each other. The two meander through the streets of Paris on foot, in cafe´s and on a boat finding out what the other has been up to the last decade. Jesse constantly makes sexual references and though the two are more mature, there’s still an innocence of seeing these two together.
The plot can essentially be divulged as “talking, talking, and talking” but as with all good screenplays (Hawke, Delpy and Linklater all wrote the script) it’s the substance that matters. There’s not a lot of action, just layers and layers of feelings that are shown that somehow only these two can show towards each other. Jesse is not happily married and Céline is dating someone supposedly in the same situation. Probably the most satisfying thing about the movie is the ending, it’s open-ended just like the original and they even discuss movies with endings like this (though their many talks). This is the kind of movie that could be made every ten years for the rest of their lives, though I sense that we may not see another incarnation for a while (if ever). When two actors have the obvious chemistry like Delpy and Hawke, the words are merely for our enjoyment. I caught so many subtle looks and glances between the two; I found it hard to tell if it was acting or if these two really have some sort of emotional connection. No matter the case, movies like this don’t come around too often – you might say every nine years – and seizing the opportunity to take these in is very satisfying. While the movie stands on it’s own, it’s almost a prerequisite to have seen the original (Delpy looks pretty much the same while Hawke seems about 30 pounds lighter with much more chiseled facial features). Truly “Before Sunset” is one of the better movies I’ve seen this year and I couldn’t recommend it more.
If you’ve not seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I’d advise you to stop right here and check those movies out. While this review might give away potential spoilers, I think it’s somewhat…right to have viewed those movies prior to reading this review. Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll say that my history with this particular trio of films dates way back to 1995 when Before Sunrise hit theaters. A lot of has changed for me, the characters in these films and the world in general in the last 18 years and the reality of life. Things change. That’s a hard thing to accept. I think it’s human nature to look back on something and want to have it again. To be greedy. To undo things that can’t be undone. That’s how I felt when watching this final installment and, in some ways, feeling like I’ve grown up with Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Céline. I think, in one respect, I’ve identified with these characters is that they’re essentially the same age as me. In Before Sunrise, they were of college age, Before Sunset they were in their early 30’s and now, in Before Midnight are married with children. In a way, this has paralleled my life (and countless others’ I’m sure) and, in one regard, is why these films are among my favorites.
Nine years has passed since we last saw Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). They’re now married with twin daughters and Jesse’s son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is set to enter High School. Hank has spent the Summer with them in Greece and is heading back home to Chicago. This gets Hank to thinking about his relationship with his son, but he’s got other commitments with his wife and twin daughters of his own. The family is in Greece spending time with a colleague of Jesse’s, though with the Summer winding down, it’s time to get back to real life. As Céline and Jesse discuss their life, Jesse’s concerns about his son and their life in general, we start to see that this is a different film than the first two. In a scene that I’ll call “The Argument” it’s revealed that one might not still love the other one. For fans of this series, this is something that’s hard to take and it initially turned me off of the movie. As with the two previous installments, there’s no real definitive end point, it can actually be classified as “walking and talking.” But it does get us thinking…what’s next for Jesse and Celine?
A certain member of my review staff will, undoubtedly, scrutinize every single word of this review and I may or may not meet his expectations. I’d even sent him a message the other day upon my first viewing of this movie telling him that I didn’t care for it. He disagreed. I then listened to the commentary track, reflected on it for a day and then re-watched the movie. It hit me differently the second time around. I think, in a way, we project ourselves into these characters and this movie doesn’t share the same upbeat tone of the first two. This isn’t about falling in love or even the reconnection or rediscovering someone. Jesse and Céline are married, they’ve got children, there aren’t a whole lot of milestones left for them except to grow old and die together. They talk and have conversations, yes, but it’s the “married” type in which Céline asks open ended questions and Jesse’s answer isn’t ever satisfactory. As a married man myself for nearly four years now, I know these conversations well and they are indicative of a married life. I’d wager that others out there know what I’m referring to. Before Midnight, on its surface, is the same film as the first two. But if you dig deeper, it’s probably the most realistic film of the three. Why? It’s hard to explain. I’d say it’s the natural progression of life in general and living it through Jesse and Céline eyes is a remarkable thing indeed.
Video: How’s it look?
The quality of these films does vary, but any fan of Criterion knows that they’ll do their absolute best to make a movie look the way it was intended. And let’s also bear in mind that it’s been 22 years since Before Sunrise was released. Lastly, Richard Linklater isn’t really known for his films costing $100 million to produce, so if you ever needed a crash course in independent filmmaking – this is your guy. Having said all of that, Before Sunrise was given a new 2K restoration by Criterion. I still have Warner’s old DVD and looking at the two, it’s clear (pardon the pun) to see the difference. The biggest thing was the contrast. A majority of the movie takes place at night (obviously), so some of the shadows and black levels have been leveled out which creates a much more inviting picture. Flesh tones seem a bit warmer and natural and the movie seems to have more of a sheen to it. It’s a noticeable improvement on all levels.
Leaping forward nine years, we have 2004’s Before Sunset. Like its predecessor, this has been given a new 2K restoration, though the movie didn’t look nearly as “bad” as the former film. That said, I found this to be a much sharper picture all around. There seems to be more depth to it and the colors seem to have a little more life in them. Detail has been improved a bit as well. Looking once again at Warner’s DVD, there seemed to be some edge enhancement that plagued a few of the outdoor scenes, but those have been fixed and now we’re left with clean, sharp edges. While not a night and day difference (see what I did there?), this is enough of an improvement over the DVD to be noticeably appreciated.
Being the newest of the three films, this is the only one to have been released on Blu-ray previously (by Sony, the other two were released by Warner). I wasn’t able to tell much, if anything, has changed from the 2013 Blu-ray release. This is a much more colorful film, with rich, sun-baked scenes Céline have aged two decades and it shows, though I’ll say that she has aged much better than he. Contrast and black levels are rock solid, detail is sharp. There’s no noticable improvement here and I’m quite sure that this is the same transfer for the Blu-ray since that too was supervised by Linklater
Audio: How’s it sound?
I’m actually going to lump all three films together for the audio portion of the review. Why? They’re more in tune with one another than the video quality and if ever there are films that get more “bang for your buck” when it comes to dialogue, it’s these. None of these movies are ones that will showcase your system, in fact it might have been easier to make them all mono releases and be done with it. Of course, Before Midnight seems to sound the best of the lot with some directional effects here and there, but it’s still heavy on the dialogue, too. Vocals, by and large, seem pure and crisp, and as the films progress, Hawke’s voice becomes a little more raspy. But it’s odd that even Delpy’s voice has gotten lower since Before Sunrise (yes, I realize women’s voices get lower over the years). It’s yet another testament to how personal these films are and while the DTS HD Master Audio tracks aren’t the most robust, they’re an improvement over their predecessors – and that’s not bad!
Supplements: What are the extras?
As any fan of Criterion’s releases knows, this is yet another area in which they excel. The first two films on Warner’s old DVD’s were essentially void of any supplemental material, so it’s with arms wide open that I dove into the supplements on this box set. We’ll start, appropriately enough, at the beginning.
- Behind the Scenes – The main players in the trilogy (Linklater, Hawke and Delpy) discuss their characters and how they relate to one another. This is an archived piece and it shows.
- The Space in Between – A new feature produced especially for this set features the same trio as they discuss the film. Moderated by film critic Kent Jones, we get pretty much all we ever wanted and needed to know about the production of the film as well as how it was cast and some information about the other two films in the trilogy. It’s a great piece and one that I loved to watch.
- 3X2: A Conversation – Writers Dave Johnson and Rob Stone, both experts on writer/director Richard Linklater, dish on the film and the trilogy in general as they discuss the central themes within and they compare and contrast some of the differences in the films.
- Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny – The PBS series American Masters featured this documentary on Richard Linklater as we get a look at his entire career. It’s loaded with notable stars who have appears in his movies as well as some other acclaimed filmmakers (Kevin Smith and Jonathan Demme). This was probably my favorite supplement on the set.
- Linklater: On Cinema & Time – As the name suggests, this is a video essay by Kogonada that takes a look at how time is presented in Linklater’s films.
- Behind the Scenes – If memory serves, this is the same featurette that appears on Warner’s DVD. It’s a standard archival feature with some words from Hawke and Delpy.
The good news is that there are two new features that weren’t on the Sony Blu-ray, but the bad is that there are two features left off of that Blu-ray that didn’t appear here. I suppose purists will want to hang onto that Blu-ray if you want all of the available features for this film.
- Audio Commentary with Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater – This is the same commentary track that appeared on the Before Midnight Blu-ray, but it’s nice to have it included here. The first two discs were rather featureless and now we finally get a commentary track from these three. All three helped write the movie and were heavily involved and their comments echo that involvement. I wasn’t really felt wanting anything more after listening to this as the trio are very active and all offer up some very heartfelt remarks and comments. Truly a must listen.
- After Before – Producer and actress Athina Rachel Tsangari shot this documentary while in Greece for the filming of the movie. We get some clips with Hawke and Linklater as well as Delpy as they go throug some rehearsals for the film.
- “Love Darkens and Deepens” – This is a pretty interesting feature from a radio program called Fresh Air. In it the history of the trilogy is discussed as well as a look at the characters, how they have aged and changed since the first film.
The Bottom Line
Movies affect us all in different ways and some are vastly more personal than others. I’m willing to bet that there are a large number of moviegoers who have a visceral connection with the Before trilogy. I am among them. Richard Linklater has crafted something truly unique here and it’s also a testament to the acting prowess of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Let’s not forget that this isn’t Linklater’s only “labor of love” as the very notable Boyhood was in production while two of these films were being made. Criterion, as per usual, has knocked it out of the park. The re-mastered transfers look great, the new supplements are top notch and it’s nice to have the first two films on Blu-ray. This is one of my easiest recommendations.
For those that are curious, here are the individual covers for the films.