“O let not Time deceive you,” advises W. H. Auden in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “you cannot conquer time.” These lines, invoked with youthful diffidence in Before Sunrise, could stand as a fitting epigraph to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. The director’s films have often functioned as time machines, capturing a particular time and place with painstaking exactitude, whether a contemporary snapshot of Austin’s disaffected demimonde in Slacker, or a note-perfect recreation of the last day of the 1976 school year in Dazed and Confused. Over the nearly two decades spanned by The Before Trilogy, Linklater’s preoccupation with temporality has only intensified, so that time itself becomes both message and medium, their principal subject matter as well as the basic building blocks of their construction.
The nine-year gap between films allows Linklater and his leads, with whom he collaborates closely on the scripts, to zero in on crucial milestones in the lives of Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke): the first flush of true connection in Before Sunrise, reunion after long separation in Before Sunset, the vicissitudes of aging and domestic discord in Before Midnight. Structurally, Linklater favors the “present continuous tense” of the long take, often a sinuous Steadicam tracking shot, since these unbroken shots encourage both actors and audience to stay immersed in the present moment. A different kind of experiment in duration, Before Sunset unfolds almost in real time, further aligning the temporal experiences of characters and viewers.
Each installment in the trilogy was made without much thought to the possibility of a sequel. Yet, taken as a whole, it’s possible to trace the intricate web of thematic connections and visual echoes woven throughout the films. This can be as simple as shots of disembodied feet traversing a nondescript public space that recur in each film. Or it can be something as poetic as a triptych of evocative montage sequences: Before Sunrise ends with shots of the various spots the couple have recently frequented, an obvious shout-out to the lovelorn conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. As a mirror image of the previous film, Before Sunset opens with a preemptive glimpse of the spaces the couple will come to inhabit. After the climactic fight in Before Midnight, there’s a sequence (reminiscent of Ozu) where the camera moves around the hotel room, picking out the aftermath of their blowup.
The Before Trilogy charts the dialectics of cynicism and romanticism in the relationship as the balance of power shifts over time. In the first film, Jesse, though the active agent of change, seems the more cynical of the two, chary of palm readers with prefab predictions and mendicant street poets who take requests. By the second film, Jesse has written a novel entitled This Time in an unabashed attempt to lure Céline, who failed to turn up at their proposed six-month rendezvous, to one of his book signings. The opening scene has Jesse addressing the response to his novel’s irresolute ending, which, in a canny bit of reflexivity, parallels that of Before Sunrise. Thus the character can openly address audience reactions to the first film, how they break down along stereotypically gendered lines: The men cynically assume the characters never met again, and the women cling to the romantic notion that they did.
In the second film, the increasingly jaded Céline takes charge, quite literally dragging Jesse around the streets of Paris. The conversation assumes a more overtly (and angrily) political slant, reflecting Céline’s job at an embattled environmental agency, though Before Sunset strikes a droll Jamesian balance between European and American attitudes that helps to deflate pretensions on both sides. The bravura long-take set piece occurs late in the film during a limo ride to Céline’s apartment where the couple dramatically disburden themselves of their romantic illusions, a wrenching scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Cassavetes film. This pivotal scene decisively moves the films in this trilogy beyond their superficial pigeonholing as romantic comedies—a designation that, though accurate enough given the first two films’ surface wit and sparkle, does something of a disservice to the “unbearable lightness” of their existential notions.
In what constitutes a supremely romantic gesture, Jesse throws over his unhappy marriage at film’s end so that he can stay with Céline. Before Midnight opens with the thorny consequences of that decision, showing Jesse’s loyalties divided between his visiting son and the domestic ménage he maintains with Céline, a fault line that only widens as the film goes on. Before Midnight jettisons all notions of romantic illusion for a mature study of a relationship under duress, owing a particular debt to Roberto Rossellini’s pungent Journey to Italy, a film Céline obliquely refers to along the way.
Before Midnight also differs from the earlier films in that it features a cast of characters that serve as sounding boards for Céline and Jesse. This becomes particularly consequential over the course of the film’s central set piece, a modern-dress Plato’s Symposium focused on humanity’s increasingly erotic obsession with technology. You get the real sense that Céline and Jesse’s fellow diners represent quasi-allegorical alternative versions of the couple; throughout, it’s as if Céline and Jesse are catching quick glimpses of their pasts, presents, and futures. This would certainly be in keeping with the funhouse-mirror interrelatedness that runs across the trilogy.
The Before Trilogy constitutes a Moebius-strip temporal loop: By the third film, Céline and Jesse have become the fractious couple they avoided on the train in Before Sunrise. That film opens with Jesse framing his spontaneous invitation to Céline as an imaginative act of time travel. Before Midnight concludes with Jesse reading Céline an imaginary letter from her 82-year-old self, a ploy he hopes will persuade her to remain committed to their relationship. The trilogy’s always playful, yet stirringly plangent, blurring of past and future tenses finds perfect expression in Céline’s final line: “Well, it must’ve been one hell of a night we’re about to have.”
Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are presented in newly restored 2K transfers. Before Sunrise benefits the most from the overhaul, with major improvements to clarity and visibility evident in its key nighttime sequences. Across the board, colors are vivid and fine details register strongly. There's still some variability in color density in Before Sunrise, depending on available lighting conditions, but the image solidity looks worlds better than it did in prior SD editions. Before Sunrise comes with a Master Audio stereo mix, while Before Sunset and Before Midnight feature surround tracks. These add some appreciable depth and dynamics to ambient sounds. The scores, always sparingly and subtly employed, sound excellent.
The Criterion Collection loads their three-disc set with a comprehensive combination of new and archival materials. What's remarkable about this assemblage is that—though many of the extras feature Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy talking about one or all of the films—there's very little in the way of exasperating repetition. "The Space in Between," a moderated discussion between film critic Kent Jones, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, focuses primarily on casting Before Sunrise and the writing process on all three films. For "3X2: A Conversation," film scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone unpack the philosophical themes and visual strategies of the films. The behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews on Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are relatively brief but never uninteresting.
Originally broadcast as part of PBS's American Masters series, Louis Black and Karen Bernstein's Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny is an intimate career overview that offers insights into Linklater's early writings and glimpses of his sprawling, self-designed Texas ranch. "Linklater // On Cinema & Time" offers a poetic rumination on the titular themes by intercutting bits of the director's films with other classics of world cinema, all while an audio interview plays. The commentary track with Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke on Before Midnight delves deeper into the making of the film; it's a laidback, insightful, and often hilarious listen. An episode of NPR's Fresh Air once again features Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy fielding host Terry Gross's astute questions. Athina Rachel Tsangari's "After Before" is an extended behind-the-scenes look at Before Midnight with its interviews filmed on the last day of shooting. Finally, the booklet contains a perspicacious essay by film critic Dennis Lim on the trilogy's overarching preoccupations.
Masterworks of contemporary American cinema, Richard Linklater’s The Before Trilogy receive stunning 2K transfers and a comprehensive compilation of bonus materials from Criterion.