In some ways, it’s just another variation on the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again” story. Eighteen years ago, Jesse met Celine on a train and persuaded her to get off with him in Vienna. They would spend one night together walking and talking (and falling in love) “before sunrise” and his early flight back to the states.

Before Sunrise (1995), Trailer

Despite an earnest promise to reunite, they don’t see each other again until nine years pass. Jesse has become a successful author; Celine, a dedicated activist. They spend another afternoon together walking again and talking again (and falling in love again) “before sunset” and his flight back to the states.

Except that he misses his flight. And, in theory, they live happily ever after.

Before Sunset (2004), Trailer

Or do they?

At this point, unless you’ve seen the two films I’ve just summarized, I’m going to encourage you to stop reading. By all means, bookmark this story and return to it. (Thank you!) But, do take a couple of days first and rent Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Visit your local video store (assuming you still have one), go to Netflix, or stream them on Amazon ($2.99 for 48 hours, quite a bargain).

Although the new Before Midnight would probably stand on its own as a remarkable portrait of midlife love and loss, the experience will be that much richer after watching the first two movies.

For its small but devout fan base, Jesse and Celine’s romance has played out in real time over the past eighteen years. In fact, in many ways this absorbing cinematic experiment feels more like reality than any Reality TV program. Each of the three films takes place in one of the world’s most gorgeous settings (Vienna, Paris, and now Greece), and yet these beautiful locales are merely backdrops to the real meat of the movies; each film is essentially a 90-minute conversation. As the audience, we get to eavesdrop on two extremely articulate, sometimes self-absorbed, often charming people as they meet, then reunite, and now live their lives together. For better or worse.

 

Before Midnight (2013), Trailer

Before Midnight is less insular then the earlier films. In their 40s now, Jesse and Celine don’t have the luxury of blocking out the rest of the world. This, however, doesn’t keep them from talking. After Jesse bids a sad farewell to his teen son (from the marriage he ended when he missed that plane nine years ago), he joins Celine and their sleeping twins for a twenty-minute drive back to their villa. The deft script fills us in on what we’ve missed in a long, single shot that would certainly prove tiresome if the dialogue weren’t so extraordinary. The conversation goes from day-to-day parenting to Celine’s career stress to the guilt Jesse feels sending his son back to a bitter mother. There are jokes, there are smart observations, there are buttons pushed, and playful threats of break up. It feels (as did the two previous movies) as though it’s all improvised. But, in reality the Before scripts are painstakingly crafted and rehearsed.

The movies’ stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, are credited as co-writers with the trilogy’s director, Richard Linklater. This is a formula we’re familiar with (they contributed to Before Sunrise without credits and were nominated for an Oscar for the script of Before Sunset). And it works.

The next part of the movie breaks the mold a bit and introduces a small company of secondary characters. There is an older writer (the couple’s host) and his lady companion; a middle-aged couple with wry, cynical views on love and sex; and an incandescently lovely young pair who, of course, remind us of Jesse and Celine eighteen years ago. Like the main characters, these two met under a time crunch (she had just performed in a summer theater festival and was leaving the next day) but in a decidedly twenty-first-century twist, they were able to stay connected and woo each other remotely via Skype. They find Celine and Jesse’s story sweet and romantic and just a bit old-fashioned.

Through the course of a voluptuous lunch with these new friends, we continue to enjoy the same level of intelligent conversation we’ve become accustomed to in years past. But resentments begin to surface. Jesse, who had already written a book about that first night in Vienna, has also published a second about their reunion in Paris. It’s clear that this is a sore spot for Celine, as are the legion of female fans who flirt with him at readings. After much observation and theorizing about men and women, work and sex, youth and age, it’s time for Jesse and Celine to leave. As a parting gift, their friends have reserved a room for them at a luxurious spa. 

Now we’re in familiar territory. Jesse and Celine walk through the Greek countryside and a picturesque town, conversing all the way. This gives them (and us) a chance to reminisce until they arrive at the hotel. Their room, meant to be a romantic getaway, quickly turns into a battlefield.

And what a battle it is! I’ve always thought that the most critical ingredient in keeping a marriage together is that the two people agree to pull punches. After years with someone, chances are you know exactly what to say that would wound them most. The trust is that you will never say the one worst thing that can’t be unsaid. Celine and Jesse do. Again and again. When I returned from seeing Before Midnight and my husband asked how it was, the first word that popped into my mind (and out of my mouth) was “Brutal.” The second was “Brilliant.”

Although sex is a major topic in the earlier movies, there’s no nudity until this third one. I found this an interesting choice, for two reasons. One expects to see a topless 20-something Julie Delpy (Before Sunrise) or a topless 30-something Julie Delpy (Before Sunset), but not so much to see that now.  The actress is over 40. Celine has complained that she’s fat (she’s not; but she’s also not 22 anymore—Hollywood has conditioned us to expect gravity-defying breasts). When the fight begins, Jesse and Celine had just started making love, and they are soon so embroiled in acrimony that Celine doesn’t think to pull her dress back up. Their fight is so naked that her own nakedness doesn’t even register. She is—they are—completely laid bare.

Having just watched the earlier films, I was reminded that their relationship started with a fight—someone else’s. In Before Sunrise, Celine moves to an empty train seat near Jesse to get away from an angry feuding couple. In its way, the Before movies have come full circle. Dewy Celine and rakish Jesse have finally become those bitter middle-aged people. And, while the movie leaves us with hope, there are also things that can never be unsaid.

The first movie was all about possibility. The second was about making a decision. Before Midnight is about consequences. Together they are a fascinating look at how we live and love.

My favorite scene is in the movie’s trailer, so I feel I can share it with you. Sitting at a seaside taverna on their way to the hotel, Celine watches the sun setting and narrates a simple countdown: “Still there, still there, still there, gone.”

Despite the choices and disappointments, Jesse and Celine aren’t gone yet. I for one am looking forward to another Before . . .  in about nine years.