Three shades of love

Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke take a walk through the island of Peloponnese, Greece in Before Midnight. Image credit: Sony Pictures Classics

In 2013 Before Midnight arrived. Nine years before that there was Before Sunset. Go back another nine years, and you get Before Sunrise. They form an unlikely trilogy, a saga of love over 18 years.

I was in the prime of my youth when I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. I fell in love with it. I loved the plot, characters and the acting. The story spanning less than 12 hours was riveting: a romance between two strangers in their early 20s who meet on a train. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) impulsively asks Celine (Julie Delphy) to get off the train, and they talk and walk through the streets of Vienna at night, discovering each other and falling in love before parting. She had a Paris-bound train to catch, and he had to fly home to the United States.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy make imaginary phone calls in a Vienna cafe in Before Sunrise. Image credit: Columbia Pictures

It could easily have been boring. Imagine two people talking about mundane subjects of boyfriends, girlfriends, music and death for almost the entire length of the movie. Here’s where you admire Linklater’s script, dialogues and filmmaking. The long sequences capture the flowing conversation, and you almost feel as if you are eavesdropping. The movie stayed with me. And the train journey struck a personal chord.

Years later, I came across the sequel. I also learned that the story of Before Sunrise was based on a similar personal experience. The sequel, Before Sunset, was born out of the Linklater’s attempt to translate his experience into a story. He drafted in actors Hawke and Delphy to co-write the script for the sequel.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy catch up on their lives during a ferry ride in Paris in Before Sunset. Image credit: Warner Independent Pictures

So when Before Sunset came, I was very curious. Did the American and the French student meet after six months, as they promised? Paris? What happened at Vienna? Jesse and Celine had moved on in life, matured into responsible adults. After the unexpected reunion, they walk through the streets of Paris and ride a ferry, catching up on their lives. And he has a plane to catch, before sunset.

The approach and treatment are strikingly similar to the first film yet there was something very different. Hawke and Delphy subtly lift their characters to a new level. The two may have gone separate ways, but the connection is apparent even after a nine-year gap: you find it in their smiles, laughter, looks and the whole body language. I found myself willing them to rekindle their love.

Linklater kept alive the mystery and chemistry of romance in the first two films, and he could have easily turned the third into another fable of love. Instead, he chose to make Before Midnight into a brutal dissection of a midlife crisis, collaborating again with Hawke and Delphy on the script.

Set in Peloponnese, Greece, Jesse and Celine are in the forties, their love and life worn out by the ravages of time. The dancing eyes, impish smiles and endearing dialogues gave way to furtive glances, sneering looks and barbed verbal attacks. Insecurities and annoyance bred by a life together spring to the surface as they spew vitriol revisiting one bitter memory after another. It was so superb and so vicious that several times I wondered whether it was the same couple who ignited their romance with unsaid words and kept alive their love with a yearning to be with each other.

At one point, Celine asks if Jesse would invite her to get off the train if they had met at this minute. Jesse’s response reflects the reality of the struggles that love must overcome to survive.

Before Midnight is a brilliantly crafted movie. To me, it is the best of the trilogy. Each of the three films is unique, but together they represent the best love story.

In real life, Linklater’s romance fizzled out. His muse died in an accident in 1994, a few weeks before he started filming Before Sunset. He learned of Amy Lehrhaupt’s death only in 2010, long before the work on Before Midnight began.

Such is life!


This article was first published in in 2014