2 Missing Details in Richard Linklater’s Epic Before Trilogy

The Before Trilogy, a series of films about a couple spanning nearly two decades, were directed by Richard Linklater, an American raised in Texas and marked by that background (and star Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). He’s brought his upbringing and his experiences to the silver screen (although not in the Before Trilogy, for the most part), presenting audiences with a view of contemporary Texas that is in many ways distinct from its former and current associations.

Yet it is not by accident that signs of that Texas background are few and far between, in turn bestowing a kind of anytime/anywhere-edness on the stories of several of his films. This quality is probably one of the features that make him attractive to film production companies as well as to audiences (with that said, I suspect most filmgoers would not recognize his name, even if they would several of his films).

It seems logical that a film not too embedded within its time and place would be more capable of speaking to viewers who lack that context yet still could enjoy the story.

The problem, however, that I’m sure Linklater is aware of and of which every good writer and artist should be aware, is that abstraction and generality are almost always signs of failure in the creative process.

The artist may want her work to transcend its conditions, but it cannot do so by sloughing off all of the things that give it character and definition.

These are some reasons metaphor and symbol are so important, why language is so mystifying.

Cover of the Criterion Collection box set for these films.

Time in the Before Trilogy

Both in this series of films and in Boyhood (2014) Linklater has dabbled with the effects of time. I use the word dabble because that seems like the most appropriate word. Can anyone intend across time? Sheer acts of will are for fascists. Time will have her way.

Moreover, the films were made in an increasingly cooperative context in which Delpy especially but also Hawke made contributions to the development of the characters and what in particular, they would say. This last detail is essential since the Before trilogy is founded on a conversation between intimates, the success or failure of which is determined by the quality of that conversation.

We see Jesse and Céline age in ways that are not incidental but essential to the plot. Eight years has to pass before Jesse and Céline can come together. Another ten years must pass before their crisis can erupt.

What is (the Context of) the Before Trilogy?

Before Sunrise (1995)

observes two early-twenty-somethings in the mid-1990s meet on a train from Budapest back west. Jesse’s American, Céline’s French. As they get to talking, get to know each other, a rapport seems apparent. Yet he must get off at Vienna, while she is planning on going further to Paris.

Promotional still from Before Sunset of Jesse and Céline embrace
Promotional image from Before Sunset, featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy

He asks her to get off the train and spend the evening and night with him, walking around Vienna, before his flight leaves the next morning. She accepts.

They spend the next twelve hours walking and talking through the city, stopping at only one Viennese locale in particular, a cemetery (by this I just mean somewhere that is not interchangeable with another, like a restaurant or coffee shop or bar). They are not there to be tourists: they are there to spend time with one another, to talk and be with the other. To see what happens.

For example, eventually they sleep together in a park, yet this moment is not the telos of their time together.

Instead, the film is about their conversation. Their conversation is interesting, too. We want to know more about these characters and what they say to each other. For the most part, they do not say things that are wildly unexpected. Their individual contributions to the discussion reflect their own backgrounds and experiences. Jesse grew up in Texas, Céline in Paris.

Although it’s conversation driven, it’s not an Éric Rohmer film or My Dinner with Andre (1981) (both of which, I should say, I really appreciate — my favorite Rohmer film is La Collectioneuse [1967]).

At the end of their time, Jesse walks Céline to the train station and sees her off. Up to this moment, they’d planned not to pretend to keep in touch, assuming long distance exchange would only peter out. Yet in those last moments they agree to meet in six months in the same place.

Before Sunset (2003)

is set in Paris, where Jesse is ending a tour of European cities to promote his book, a novel that recounts his night with Céline. To this point, he has not spoken with her in the eight years since that night. Their planned rendezvous in Vienna did not come off: he was there, but she was not.

As he answers one last question at the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, he notices Céline enter.

He’s elated to see her and she him. Though he only has a few hours before he returns to the US, they decide to walk and talk through Paris, like they had in Vienna.

Image from Before Sunset of Jesse and Céline sailing down the Seine
Romantically enjoying a riverboat down the Seine

Yet things are quite different because she’d missed their meeting in Vienna (her grandmother had died), and he’s written a book about their first encounter that she’s read, twice, in fact. Their words are imbued with weight because of that past, the book, and the ways their lives have developed in the interim.

He’s married with a son, even if the relationship is running on fumes. She’s living with a man who is frequently travelling, and she prefers that. Moreover, she has a fulfilling career engaged in the fight against climate change. Again, their conversation is mostly unmoored, but still compelling.

Yet his book has changed things. The attraction and thrill in the other’s company is still there, but now consequences attach to this encounter. What will happen? As their time draws to a close, she tells him he’s going to miss his flight. He agrees.

Before Midnight (2013)

begins at a Greek airport where Jesse is dropping off his son, who’s returning to New York after spending the summer with his father, Céline, and their two daughters. It’s difficult for him to see his son go, as we quickly learn in the exchanges between him and Céline as they drive away from the airport. His son is entering high school soon, but Jesse has been living with his new family in Paris, only able to see him during the summers.

Still from Before Midnight in which Jesse and Céline are walking to the hotel
Winding their way to the hotel

Jesse mentions that he would like to be closer to his son. The prospect of moving back to the United States infuriates Céline even though Jesse has not said that he wants to move back. That evening, when Jesse and Céline have been offered a night alone in a nice hotel (away from children) at first they wind their way to the hotel engaging in the interesting discussion that we’ve seen in the previous films.

At the hotel it seems like they will enjoy lovemaking … until Jesse’s son calls Céline to tell them he’s arrived. Jesse expresses irritation that Céline will not let him talk. This leads to a much larger conflict about their relationship, his possible infidelity, hers, whether she still loves him. In particular, her sense that he does not do enough in the domestic setting. His incredulity that she says this.

She leaves in anger, comes back, and then leaves again.

Eventually, he finds her at a restaurant, outside, still seething. Little that he can say can assuage her anger, but finally she seems momentarily pacified.

The audience doesn’t know what will happen, just as it didn’t at the end of the previous two films.

Missing Details

Perhaps Linklater left this ending unclear in order to leave open the possibility of a fourth film. In which case, it should be in production as I write and you do not yet know the existence of this essay.

I think this is the last film and I think it’s the last film because the ending seems clear. Céline will leave Jesse. His love is not enough. He will suffer another failed marriage, although at least this one started in love rather than pregnancy.

Missing details are important because they permit or even license the audience to come to conclusions. And what do audiences do but come to conclusions. Judgment is part of the act of aesthetic enjoyment … I’m tempted to say.

To return to the point from which this essay began, good films, books need the details that make them real, that provide characters and actions with dimension and gravity. Every creator may wish for a generous posterity for their creation, but skinning the work of those details cannot achieve that.

Lots of things are missing in the Before Trilogy, but I will only name two, which are really the same thing. After the first film, both of the characters spend some time in New York. They live there — least Jesse does — through September 11th (TBC, the two details are New York and 9/11).

Need it be said that this is the most important geopolitical event of the last twenty-five years?

And yet, nary a word in the Before Trilogy. That is a palpable absence. Linklater excised it for probably good reasons. It would derail everything. Yet, it is also the basis for so many things. Céline’s horror of the United States could not fail to be rooted in its post-9/11 jingoism, which lasts even in the present day.

Last thing: they lived in New York. When you live in New York, you talk about New York and there’s a lot to talk about. Neighborhoods are diverse and memorable. But only one detail do we get: that Céline lived near Greenwich Village, where Jesse probably saw her as he drove to his wedding.

Judgment on the Before Trilogy

Do these missing details damage the film?

Am I wrong to say that is an individual judgment? (I like to adopt this intellectual position where certain issues are pertinent to speak to and others are “individual,” yet I admit some bad faith in this.)

As a person, a man who was in his twenties when the first film was set, and as a father of a child from whose mother I’ve recently been estranged, so much of these films is salient. The conflicts between Jesse and Céline over his son and their daughters are especially meaningful.

Yet I do not think that the world can be separated from its occupants. Or vice versa, in this case. Moreover, that geopolitical contextualization is an aesthetic imperative, in my view.

What’s more, I appreciate the power of metaphor and symbol, and so I’m impressed by what Linklater has done here, although as I said above it is consistent with other films he’s made. I think I understand why he did it.

As much as I like these films and as much as they mean to me, I think Boyhood will be his more enduring contribution, and the Before Trilogy is going to end up being a little chapter in film history that will be quickly forgotten. I feel richer for the experience of seeing these films. But I think that Linklater, as a director, has limited the power of his films through these choices.