The last time I saw France, I caught a train alone from Paris to Lyon. I ate a ham and cheese baguette, drank a bottle of Orangina, and flicked absently between magazines, writing in my journal, and reading the novel I had purchased earlier that week, Colette’s Chéri (1920). But most of the time I just gazed out the window, thinking about where I had been, and where I was going. The train carriage was sparsely populated, often silent. I thought about Celine and Jesse.
I had acquired that copy of Chéri at Shakespeare and Company. On that October afternoon, the bookshop was busy. I stayed a while, chatted with the affable staff, and then took my treasures out into the late autumn sun. I drank a citron pressé, window-shopped, wandered then paused beside the shining Seine. Day turned into night. I thought about Celine and Jesse.
I have been thinking about Celine and Jesse for most of my adult life. This is obviously quite peculiar since Celine and Jesse are fictional characters in a trilogy of films directed by Richard Linklater – Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) known collectively as The Before Trilogy. But Celine and Jesse are also much more than just two people in a movie to me. Since I was 20, I have been spying on the private moments of their lives. This has created an unexpected intimacy. I know Celine and Jesse well; I genuinely care what happens to them as individuals and as a couple.
I first met Celine and Jesse when they first met each other, in a chance encounter on a train in Europe during the summer of 1994. In Before Sunrise, Celine and Jesse (played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) are young and full of yearning and the film captures the feeling of romantic possibility that is typical of being in your early 20s and still truly hopeful about the future that lies ahead. Jesse, who has to catch a plane back to the US the following morning, appeals to Celine’s future self to get off the train bound for Paris with him and spend the night walking around Vienna, with this earnest but unforgettable plea:
Jump ahead, 10, 20 years, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy it used to have. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might’ve happened if you’d picked up with one of them. I’m one of those guys.
Celine agrees to follow him, and I followed them both around Vienna as they talked and fell in love. Before Sunrise ends with Celine and Jesse promising to meet in six months time in the exact same spot at the train station where they said goodbye. They don’t exchange last names or phone numbers. They have no way to get in touch. Celine and Jesse simply trust in the other’s feelings for them, and that they will be there waiting come December. “No delusions. No projections. We’ll just make tonight great,” Jesse says.
I lost track of Celine and Jesse for nine years. But I thought of them often and fondly over this time. And then I found them again, in a dusty corner of Paris. They were older, a bit cynical, and chewed up by regrets. Before Sunset brought Celine and Jesse together again during the last stop of Jesse’s European book tour. He was in Paris promoting his first novel, This Time, a thinly veiled account of his Viennese encounter with Celine. Once again they spent some time walking and talking. Celine eventually revealed that she wasn’t just at Shakespeare and Company by chance – she had read his book, and seen his upcoming talk advertised on a poster. Jesse, wearing a wedding ring, eventually confessed that his marriage was falling apart; that he loved his four-year-old son Hank, but didn’t know if this was enough of a reason to stay with his wife. Later, he admitted to Celine of his book, “I wrote it in a way to try and find you.”
Once again, Celine and Jesse’s time together was punctuated by Jesse’s need to catch a plane back home. But they made the most of the minutes they had – overly formal and a little nervous at first, but finally open and vulnerable. Time stretched out, questions were answered, misgivings aired, a flame rekindled. Finally, in Celine’s apartment, as the sun prepared to set on the day, it became clear that Jesse would miss his plane. “I know,” he confirmed. And then the screen turned black, and for another nine years, I was left waiting.
When I found Celine and Jesse for the third time, their relationship had changed again. In Before Midnight I discovered that Jesse stayed in Paris with Celine and that they had been together ever since; that Jesse endured a difficult divorce from his American wife, and that Celine survived a dangerous pregnancy to deliver their twin girls, Ella and Nina. Since I last checked in with them, Jesse had published another two books, and was invited to the southern Peloponnese to the home of a famous writer to work on his fourth. Here, under the Greek summer sun, problems were hinted at early on. After Jesse dropped the now teenaged Hank at the airport, his out-loud musings about how to be a more consistent presence in his son’s life led Celine to decide that he was asking her to give up her life to move to Chicago. “This is how it ends,” she pessimistically said. “This is how people start breaking up.” In the years since Before Sunset, Celine and Jesse had gone about the business of living together as a long-term couple – and parents – and their relationship had deepened and darkened. By the close of Before Midnight, as the camera tracked away from them, I was left wondering if they would survive.
Writing about The Before Trilogy, Dennis Lim explains how “for those who have aged along with them, these films ask to be read reflexively, which is to say, personally.”1 This is certainly true for me. Seeing each film in The Before Trilogy in a cinema, at the time of its original release, and as someone who is only a few years younger than Celine and Jesse are meant to be, has made it almost impossible to avoid a personal engagement with them. I know this is true for many people, and many have written eloquently and poignantly of their own romantic associations alongside their discovery of these films. My attachment is not unique. But it’s not just because I have found echoes of Celine and Jesse’s romance alongside my own failed or fruitful dalliances. More than this, it is the curious and moving experience of watching two people – both Delpy and Hawke, and Celine and Jesse – age on screen. And it has been equal parts strange and special to grow older alongside them.
“Think of this as time travel,” Jesse suggests in Before Sunrise, when he seduces Celine to delay her return to Paris. The entirety of The Before Trilogy is a cinematic experiment with time that explores, among many things, how love has the ability to freeze a moment or series of moments. Each film is an extrapolation of the theory that Jesse raises during his book talk in Before Sunset’s opening sequence, that “Time is a lie.” Within this framework, The Before Trilogy, perhaps more than any of the many other films I have ever seen in my life, behaves just like the time machine that Jesse conjures in Before Sunrise – freezing me in time and transporting me back to where I was when I first saw each film and to feel how I felt then.
The specifics of my viewing experience can’t be discounted. I count myself lucky to have discovered Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight when they were released and not after the first sequel had arrived, or the entire trilogy had already played out. I didn’t know, for example, when I sat down to watch Before Sunrise, that Celine and Jesse would eventually have children together. In 1995 I was just keen to see any film with Ethan Hawke in it, and Before Sunrise was just a new film from the director of Dazed and Confused (1993). I didn’t watch Before Sunrise with any understanding that it was the first instalment in something bigger, more experimental, and more profound. I had no idea that Celine and Jesse’s story would continue unfolding, in the style of François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle of films, over another 20 years, or more.
My connection to, and obsession with, each of the films in The Before Trilogy intensified because of the empty space between them. While I now take pleasure in the idea that the nine years between each of the films after Before Sunrise mimics the anticipation Celine and Jesse were experiencing, as it were, behind the scenes, when I first saw Before Sunrise I had no idea another film was coming. It felt like an ending rather than a beginning; its specific conclusion, a romantic cliffhanger of sorts. Like every other person who saw the film I asked – would Celine and Jesse keep their promise to meet again in Vienna in six months time? I never expected to have this question answered; any answers I came up with were purely speculative. I was enjoying filling in the gaps of this story for myself. I didn’t know that several years later Linklater would do it for me, that I would see Celine and Jesse again in Before Sunset only to be presented with another cliffhanger and a new set of questions. Did Jesse catch his plane? I had to wait another nine years to have that resolved.
This was the best way to watch The Before Trilogy because it allowed me to hold onto my own youthful delusions about love. Now, when I return to Before Sunrise my viewing has been transformed by the knowledge, confirmed, that Celine and Jesse don’t meet six months after they part on the train platform. Now, every moment they spend together in Vienna, already burning with urgency, feels even more precious, and more doomed. Before Sunset is a gift but it makes the experience of watching Before Sunrise a bittersweet one, more akin to watching it as a cynical 30-year-old than a hopeful 20-year-old. By answering my questions – Celine’s grandmother died not long before their December 16 date so she couldn’t make it; Jesse did – it disrupted the narrative I had created in my own head, which was of course that Celine and Jesse had had their reunion and had then found a way to be together ever since that time.
Time is an essential building block of cinema, and Linklater is one of its most fascinating sculptors. But time has also reshaped my engagement with The Before Trilogy, permitting me to find traces of meaning between one film and the other that my original viewing experience, one film every nine years, was unable to do. During his book talk in Before Sunset, Jesse says, “It’s all happening all the time, and inside every moment is another moment.” That sense of circularity is, as we get older, how we start to see the moments of our life. But it’s also how I am now positioned in relation to these three films. If my experience of The Before Trilogy was initially one in which I spent years filling in the gaps between instalments, it is now one in which I am constantly reliving Celine and Jesse’s early years through the lens of accumulated knowledge I have harvested from their later ones. Each film is a richer experience because of the existence of the others.
The Before Trilogy explores wasted time, running out of time, and as Nina Simone sings in the final moments of Before Sunset, finding someone “just in time.” These imperatives are implicit in each film’s title and a sense of urgency is also evident in Celine and Jesse’s awareness of the transitory nature of their connection. As soon as they meet in Before Sunrise, time is already slipping away from them. Every moment Celine and Jesse spend together during that “one-night thing” is imbued with melancholy and desperation and references to death; aural and visual cues remind us that their time is over before it has begun.
This idea is sewn into the trilogy’s fabric by Linklater and his collaborators – co-screenwriter Kim Krizan, and on the two sequels, Delpy and Hawke themselves. Celine and Jesse waste nine years being unhappy with other people when they might have been happier together. When they meet again in Before Sunset they are in search of lost time. But that’s metred out by the roughly 80 minutes they have together before Jesse is supposed to catch his plane home. At the long lunch that forms Before Midnight’s philosophical centrepiece the idea is elegantly reiterated by an older guest, Natalia (Xenia Kalogeropoulou), who shares her view of life: “We appear and we disappear. We are so important to some, but we are just passing through.”
Natalia’s words resonate back in time through the trilogy. On revisiting the earlier films, I heard it in the montage that closes Before Sunrise, of all the locations Celine and Jesse have passed through together that now only carry the trace of their bodies. It is there in Jesse’s self-questioning in Before Sunset, as he walks with Celine through Paris’ Promenade Plantée: “This is it. This is actually happening. What do you think is interesting? What do you think is funny? What do you think’s important? Every day is our last.” It is an idea that underpins Celine’s response to the paintings of Georges Seurat in Before Sunrise, in which the transitory form of the figures is emphasised. It reverberates in Jesse’s confession on a bateau mouche in Before Sunset: “I feel like if someone were to touch me I would dissolve into molecules.” And it recurs, after that lunch in Before Midnight, as Celine and Jesse make their way to the hotel that will be the site of their explosive argument, when Jesse asks, “Is this really my life? Is this happening now?” It makes me think about time marching forward, threatening to leave me behind, and I know that there is only one correct answer to both Jesse’s questions – yes.
The Before Trilogy takes love seriously. It conveys the weight of some of the earlier romantic narratives that inform it – Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945), Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948), and My Night at Maud’s (Eric Rohmer, 1969) – because it understands that it is the essentially finite nature of romance that makes individual moments so important. From the first time I watched Before Sunrise it resonated with my own predilection for fated romance narratives; for those stories in which feelings are vast and consuming, but where the obstacles to love seem even more overwhelming. Before Sunrise is so much more than the trifling ‘Gen X’ romantic comedy it was sometimes referred to as. Such a description barely begins to describe it. Before Sunrise sets up an unfolding love story that takes love very seriously; that defines love as something that people are willing to upend their entire lives for, lose sleep over, and reconsider everything they previously thought to be true in the face of. As Jesse declares in Before Midnight, in the second phase of his and Celine’s epic argument: “I am giving you my whole life, okay. I’ve got nothing larger to give.”
The Before Trilogy’s approach to what love is mirrors the shifts in meaning that are natural as we age and our relationship with ourselves and others shifts. The Before Trilogy rewired my expectations of romance on film, and in many ways, from life. As Lim writes, “Screen romances do not as a rule lend themselves to sequels. To extrapolate beyond the conclusion of most love stories is to complicate, or to shatter, the myth of happily ever after.”2 To return to Before Sunrise now, over 20 years later, is a chance for me to revive my sense of romanticism, long ago tempered by disappointment and regret, much like the darker outlook both Celine and Jesse slowly reveal to each other in Before Sunset.
Confined to the back seat of a car, Celine and Jesse can no longer hide the whole truth from each other. Celine becomes angry with Jesse for writing his book about their night together. “It reminded me of how genuinely romantic I was, how I had so much hope in things. Now it’s like, I don’t believe in anything that relates to love, I don’t feel things for people anymore.” Jesse is suffering a similar frustration: “I think that I might have given up on the whole idea of romantic love, that I might have put it to bed that day when you weren’t there. I think I might have done that.” By the time we meet them in Before Midnight, the romantic spirit rekindled in Celine’s apartment at the end of Before Sunset seems to have vanished altogether, and the challenge becomes, before midnight, to find a way to bring it back.
Linklater lets the trilogy play out in the spaces between fantasy and reality, romanticism and realism. Before Sunrise is the most dreamlike of the three, as it should be – Celine and Jesse are young, they are eager to impress, they understand that romance creates its own roles and they are willing to perform them. We discover Celine through Jesse’s eyes, and vice versa. When they get close in a record store listening booth, we watch one coyly watch the other. Their first kiss is on the giant Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park, as the sun begins to set. Linklater gives us other moments of intimacy, a sense that when two people try to connect, there is something magical in the world, or as Celine suggests, the only real proof of God. The film becomes increasingly dreamy the deeper into night Celine and Jesse travel. “It’s like our time together is just ours… our own creation,” Jesse says, but by morning, with the ticking clock of his departure measuring out their remaining minutes, he announces, “We’re back in real time.” The romantic ideal, so strong and potent, cannot last.
In Before Sunset’s opening sequence Jesse is asked by one of the journalists attending his book talk whether he thinks the characters in his novel met up again six months after that night. Jesse doesn’t answer but says that how you would answer that question functions as a test of “whether you’re a romantic or a cynic.” It’s a test for the audience too. In the time immediately after first watching Before Sunrise I usually responded one way, definitively coming down on the side of romance. But by the time I first saw Before Sunset I had changed my mind many times. I was, right until the moment Celine entered the bookshop scene, leaning towards the side of cynicism. Seeing Celine and Jesse back together made me want to change my answer again.
But if Before Sunrise unfolds like a dream, Before Sunset reveals how time and distance can fray the edges of even the most passionate romantic fantasy. And by the time we arrive at Before Midnight it has nearly all been excised. Whatever lessons in love The Before Trilogy sets out to give, they are lessons firmly based in realism. Celine and Jesse have always been able to shut out the real world; in the immediate aftermath of Before Sunset they did exactly that, closing the curtains and having sex for endless days. But in Before Midnight the real world can’t be kept at bay. Celine and Jesse’s relationship has become something more than encounters defined by emotional, sensual highs. That the demands of the real world disrupts their mythology; that the need to compromise and negotiate and find a new way of being together is demanding, is what gives Celine and Jesse’s story its emotional authenticity.
Linklater places Celine and Jesse in a hotel room, forcing them to stop moving, and allowing them to be alone together for the first time in the film, only to subvert our expectations of what will transpire here. When I first watched Before Midnight I felt sure this was the moment I would finally get to see how Celine and Jesse behaved as lovers. But their anger ends up swallowing their desire whole, when their kissing and undressing is interrupted by a phone call from Hank and another argument about how they might all live closer together. Celine is scared of how much she might lose and of how much she has already sacrificed of herself. “The only time I get to think now is when I take a shit at the office. I’m starting to associate thoughts with the smell of shit!” She accuses Jesse of infidelity when he was on tour in America and she was with the babies in Paris. They both say things designed to hurt.
Loving another person, giving them a part of your life, accepting all of them into yours, is difficult. Before Midnight doesn’t try to camouflage this. It lets us see Celine and Jesse at their worst and it asks us to love them all the same. The argument Celine and Jesse have in the hotel room is a very tense scene for me to watch. I often feel like I shouldn’t be there. But I also think it’s the single most powerful and true sequence in the entire trilogy because of how it unexpectedly returns me to Celine and Jesse’s first naïve encounter; how they were “just passing through” when they first met each other, but they took a chance and grabbed at something rare and fragile with both hands. I watch this epic argument not as proof that romance is a lie, that their entire relationship is an unsustainable fairytale, but as proof that what Celine and Jesse have together is worth fighting for.
After Celine storms out of the hotel room, Jesse follows her to the waterside bar and introduces himself as “a time traveller.” Reigniting the time machine, Jesse says he has come from the future to save Celine, to deliver a letter that her 82-year-old self has given him to read to her and to inform her that tonight she will have the greatest sexual experience of her life. I remember watching this scene for the first time and feeling relief to see that the sweet, romantic boy from the train was back. I could finally exhale and smile. But Celine’s armour stayed on tight. “If you want true love, then this is it. This is real life, it’s not perfect, but it’s real,” Jesse tells her, exasperated. Back to reality, but I was still smiling.
Celine and Jesse could not have predicted how much one night in Vienna when they were 23 would come to define and haunt their lives. I couldn’t have predicted, when I purchased a ticket to see Before Sunrise back in 1995 how much it, and its sequels would come to mean to me.
It’s been five years since I last saw Celine and Jesse and I am back to asking questions again, wondering if the ambiguous conclusion to Before Midnight is the conclusion of their story. I am speculating all over again. I have my own ideas about where Celine and Jesse will be if I ever find them again. It’s been five years since I last saw Celine and Jesse and I have been thinking about them ever since.