The "Before" Trilogy
A dialogue on Richard Linklater's brutally beautiful trilogy of films and what they say about conversations with art
– It begins on a train. He sees her, and when we see him see her, we know that he’s immediately drawn to her. And she’s Julie Delpy, so there’s no mystery about why he’s attracted to this beautiful, blonde Frenchwoman reading a book. And, in one of those moments so beautifully scripted for a false sense of serendipity that you know it wasn’t the universe conspiring in their favour but a screenwriter crossing the stars of these lovers, she’s forced to move seats and winds up next to him.
– You think this translucence is a good thing?
– How do you mean?
– I mean that the set up you just described sounds rather gerrymandered.
– Yes, gerrymandered. Manipulated to achieve a certain outcome. Don’t you think the best stories are those in which the internal logic is so solid that the outcome is inevitable? That it’s a matter of natural determinism, rather than being forced by a writer not talented enough to let the characters come alive and go where they want?
– Well, which one is it – are they pre-determined or do the characters have free will?
– Both. They make their choices and those choices lead them along a path at the end of which is a narrative conclusion that makes sense. Their initial choices are derived from the preconditions of who they each are, not what the writer needs them to choose. You know I wrote a book on this, don’t you?
– On Before Sunrise?
– On the marriage of free-will and determinism. It doesn’t matter, tell me about your movie.
– Okay, so Ethan Hawke’s character – his name is Jesse – strikes up faltering small talk with Céline – that’s Julie Delpy – and they get off the train together at Vienna. But here’s the thing: She wasn’t supposed to get off at Vienna. Jesse talks her into it, he gives her a line about picturing herself ten years in the future and wondering, What if I had spent the day with that American in Vienna? What I love is that the subsequent day spent wandering the city and falling in love and the movie itself all result from a willingness to take conversational detours. That’s what the movie is all about – trying on ideas and opinions like clothes, the way we all do when we’re young, and allowing ourselves to drift and get lost and get swept up into other people’s lives. Actually, the fact that it all starts on a train is a great visual metaphor, because they are already on one “train of thought” and getting off the train symbolises their minds and ideas wandering “off track”.
– You’re stretching for that metaphor, buster.
– Yeah, maybe. By the way, calling me “buster” makes you sound ridiculous, like someone from the fifties.
– So what happens in Vienna? You mentioned something about falling in love, but how does that happen? And what else happens?
– That’s the thing! Nothing really happens. They walk, they talk, it’s implied that maybe they sleep together ...
– I wouldn’t call that “nothing happening”.
– But it doesn’t happen onscreen, it’s implied, we assume it happens. And then they return to the train station and agree not to swap contact info but to meet there again in exactly six months.
– All right, sorry, but it doesn’t really matter, the movie’s not about the plot – like I said, there isn’t one, not really – it’s about the journey itself. So, pushed to reconsider, I suppose what happens is that these two people are irreversibly changed by conversation. She gets off the train because of talking to him, they spend the night together talking, and you know that whatever happens to them in the future, they will have been deeply affected by everything they talk about and how they talk about it. The transformational, navigational power of conversation – the grand theme of the movie. You have to watch it, please watch it.
– I was going to watch something else tonight ...
– Sure, but the cinema is doing a re-run this evening. I’ll bet whatever you were going to watch is on DVD, right? See, I knew it! You can watch that any time, but Before Sunrise may not be on a cinema screen near you ever again. Come with me to watch it tonight?
– Wow ... wow.
– I know.
– How can watching two strangers – as much to us as to each other – idly talking about whatever comes into their heads, while wandering aimlessly, be so captivating? You know what I think it is – earlier this afternoon, you described Jesse and Céline as trying on ideas and personalities, and we get to do something similar in watching their conversation. They’re like avatars acting out hypothetical scenarios so we can see what happens if this idea is put up against that idea, or if someone says a particular thing, how someone else responds.
– You’re on to something there. But I also feel like I’m taking part in the conversation too, I’m not merely a passive observer. There’s a voice in my head constantly reacting and responding to what I’m hearing, annotating their comments with my own mental marginalia, arguing with them. Even though they can’t hear me, there’s something productive or, I don’t know, cathartic about the process. Does that make sense?
– As much as anything you say does. I’m teasing! But wait, you have to tell me, do they meet up again in six months?
– I thought you didn’t like spoilers?
– I don’t ... You’re right, I’ll find out for myself. Can I borrow the sequel?
– Sequels, plural; there are three Before movies. But I only own the first and second. For some reason, I still haven’t watched the third. I know, that’s surprising, isn’t it? Given how much I’ve proselytised for the first. But I love these movies so much, they have occupied a very specific and cherished part of my cinematic soul, and I gave the first two their own space to be watched as independent things – there was a solid nine months between watching the first and the second – and I’ve been waiting for the ideal time to watch the third.
– How about when I’ve seen the second, we watch the third together? And in the meantime, while you’re waiting for me to get around to watching – what is it called?
– Before Sunset.
– That’s a confusing title, it sounds far too much like the first. Anyway, while I watch that, you should watch 2 Days in Paris. It’s a movie by Julie Delpy and it’s a lot like Before Sunrise.
– I’m not convinced any movie can be like the Before trilogy. They are films unto themselves.
– What about When Harry Met Sally? That’s clearly a predecessor to these movies.
– Are you serious? You’re not serious. When Harry Met Sally is nothing like Before Sunrise.
– Both are movies dealing with young people growing up, finding out who they are through the context of another person. And it’s primarily a movie featuring conversations. When I think about that movie, I immediately remember Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal having the most uncomfortable argument in the car when he’s driving her to New York City at the beginning.
– I think of the faked orgasm in the diner.
– And why did she do that? What was the context?
– She did it because they were talking about whether Harry would recognise a fake orgasm if he heard one.
– Exactly, they were talking. The whole movie is made up of their arguments and conversations, sharing opinions on life and love, and through those dialogues falling in love with each other. There are plenty of movies that have that same essential foundation of focusing on the words between characters rather than their actions. You can’t deny that Lost in Translation is exactly that.
– Maybe. Possibly. What about this 2 Days in Paris then? Can I come back to yours to watch it?
– I have a theory.
– Of course you do. You don’t just watch a movie and have opinions; you have a theory.
– Do you want to hear it or not? And pass me my shirt, please. Okay, my theory is that this movie, 2 Days in Paris, is actually a secret adjunct-quell.
– What the hell is an “adjunct-quell”? Where’s my sock? “Adjunct-quell” isn’t a word, buster.
– Neither was “prequel” until the ’70s. It’s a neologism of my own invention. Sequel: following on from. Prequel: taking place before. Adjunct-quell: sitting beside. All right, it’s a bit of an ugly term, I suppose “spin-off” will suffice. So 2 Days in Paris is a spin-off from the Before trilogy. I think it takes place in the decade between the events of Before Sunrise and Sunset, when we know that Jesse went off and got married and Céline dated other people.
– For God’s sake, spoilers!
– Sorry, sorry. Anyway, this guy she’s with in 2 Days in Paris is someone she breaks up with just before meeting Jesse again in Paris in the second movie. Structurally, it follows the spirit of the Before movies by featuring these long, drifting conversations between this couple about everything from global politics to blowjobs, including the intersection of the two with Bill Clinton. Delpy’s real-life parents play her parents in 2 Days in Paris, and who do we see in the courtyard of her apartment in Before Sunset?
– I don’t know, you ass, I haven’t seen it yet.
– It’s her parents in that film too. And you know the overfed feline she left with them in 2 Days in Paris? He’s also in Before Sunset – she has a little speech about how much she loves this cat. So I think she – damn, why are shoes easier to slip off than slide on? I always have to tug the lace out and pry the thing apart to get my stupidly wide feet into them – I think Delpy made a spin-off to fill in a little more of her character’s life outside of her meetings with Jesse.
– I think you’re trying to force this movie into your trilogy. It’s simply one of the many movies, as I was suggesting before, that make up the tradition into which the Before movies also fit. You would rather attach other movies like satellites to the centre of gravity that is the Before movies than “relegate” – though I don’t think it would be any kind of demotion – your precious trilogy to being “just” three amongst many.
– How much do I owe you for the session, Doctor Freud?
– Don’t be like that. I’m just noticing that there’s an odd incongruency between the way you want to create a tradition of the Before movies into which other films can be situated and the way you resist placing the Before trilogy into a tradition larger than those three movies.
– Okay, well, I have to go.
– Are you sulking, buster?
You are sulking.
– I’m not sulking. I’m thinking. Maybe you’re right. But don’t call me “buster”, it’s ridiculous. Tell you what, we should watch the next Before movie together, soon.
– Do you have to leave now? I know it’s late but ...
– I’m not sure I’m up for watching a third film tonight.
– That’s okay. We can do something else.
I’ve been considering your theory about Julie Delpy having written a spin-off to the Before trilogy. Do you know what I’m talking about? Perhaps you have forgotten your own barely breathing idea about those movies; it was a long time ago. Perhaps you don’t remember much about that night. The effect of distance on hearts growing fonder is often touted, but it’s conceivable that distance might instead make the memory weaker (although that is a less marketable notion for gift cards).
I’m rambling and doing so loquaciously (verbosely even), for which I apologise – I never managed to make much of an impression, I feel, in our spoken conversations. I doubt myself too much to leap in with my thoughts as I have them. The academic in me wants to go over each notion from several angles first, then scour the books for precedents, and subject it to a Socratic test of endurance against an antithesis of some kind. As a result, I say less than I think. But you were always interesting to listen to, so I was never bored in my silence.
Anyway – your theory. It doesn’t stand up, I’m afraid to tell you. The details don’t line up, and while avoiding anything that might come across as “rubbing it in”, I will simply point out that Delpy’s character is named Céline in Before Sunriseand Marion in 2 Days in Paris; her cat is named Che in the trilogy, Jean-Luc in the solo film; and 2 Days is set 3 years after Before Sunset, when Céline and Jesse have become a couple.
(Incidentally, I hope you have seen the final part in the trilogy, Before Midnight, and that my last point in that list wasn’t a spoiler for you. God knows, though, you’d deserve it after spoiling the second movie for me. No hard feelings, of course.)
This has to be a short letter; I am running past a post-box on my way to a meeting with my publisher, and rather than leaving you without any contact from me for a further week, I will send you two shorter letters to keep the correspondence more regular. I like the antediluvian nature of the postal system for letters – it imbues the act of communicating with a certain secular holiness, as if sitting to write is a contemplative act and wrapping the letter in an envelope and pushing it into the post-box a ritual. I take more care in writing by hand than I do with emails. I very much enjoyed reading your last letter to me. Thank you for your kind words about the book and the engagement.
I will write again soon,
PS. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you haven’t written very much about your own life. Next time, I expect some details, buster.
Fine, if you want to be an insufferable pedant, some of the factual details don’t add up. But I still take 2 Days in Paris as a spiritual spin-off. It fits in my mind and I don’t need to focus on the trivia of what her character’s name is or the cat’s; if I squint my mind’s eye the picture becomes just blurry enough to see it as I want to see it.
Have you seen Joker since it came out a couple of years ago? I know, I know, another comic book movie. But I don’t think it is. And this isn’t another one of my “theories” (please read that with the dismissive tone you used to somehow load the word with), I have evidence. The director, Todd Phillips, told an interviewer that the idea behind this smart, thoughtful, morally ambiguous movie about mental illness being released under the title of DC comic book villain was “a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film”.
What if Delpy did the same but in reverse? What if she wrote this spin-off to the remarkable movies by Richard Linklater that she had starred in, but to get past copyright issues and legal mumbo-jumbo, she changed a few details to hide what it really was?
Look, I don’t know why I’m so invested in tying your movie to mine. I’m going for a walk, I’ll think about it, and finish this letter later.
Later: I remember that you spoke about the Before movies fitting into a larger tradition. Having thought extensively about this for some time now, I think that tradition is much larger than perhaps even you were thinking at the time. I read a novel during my film studies, when I had fewer grey hairs and regrets, that I read because my lecturer talked about it as this exciting intersection between cinema and literature. It’s called Kiss of the Spiderwoman, by an Argentinian writer named Manuel Puig.
The novel is told almost entirely in dialogue, and it depicts the conversations between Molina and Valentin, with the former recounting his favourite B-movies to pass the time they share in a prison cell. Now that I think again about that book, I notice that my new theory of slipping one type of art past a social censor in the guise of another kind of art applies here too. It’s hard not to wonder while reading Kiss of the Spiderwoman how much this book exists as a result of a desire on Puig’s part to write a fun, old-fashioned horror or spy story, and by couching it in the framing device of two characters discussing it (there are even some false academic footnotes to lend seriousness to the whole thing), he convinces the reader that this is something more “literary” than that.
But I’ve drifted from my central premise, which was to link our Before trilogy, and the other movies like it, to a larger tradition. Obviously, Puig’s Spiderwoman is one example, but there are others that show there is similar tradition in literature. (I had to Google them, of course; I’m sorry to admit, and to you of all people, that I am still more about movies than books.) There’s Vox by Nicholson Baker, about a man calling a sex hotline, and Deception by Philip Roth, and a novel by Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (yes, that’s the real title). I’m also sure there must be stage plays that consist of nothing but two or more characters talking to each other, but nothing springs to mind. Still, it’s clear that whatever tradition the Before movies fall into, it’s a subcategory of a larger, cross-media tradition that includes movies and books.
I am heading out now, so I will sign off here.
PS. I can’t believe I was pleased to read you call me “buster” again. The years change things.
First, I would hate to strip you of your hard-earned title, so I will leave “insufferable pedant” to you. And, pre-empting a riposte, may I remind you of the lunch at Cookie’s Café that went on forty-five minutes longer than planned so you could detail all the reasons that Shaun of the Dead is a comic romance – with zombies – rather than a romantic comedy. I still say that’s a distinction without a difference, by the way.
No, I haven’t seen Joker, and I admit that is because I took it to be another of those comic book movies (the ones Scorsese called “theme parks” rather than cinema); based on your comments, I will certainly give it a go.
I appreciate and agree with your bringing “dialogue novels” into our discussion. And, like a Babushka doll, that kind of book fits into another broader tradition: the epistolary novel. It makes sense to think of those books – Dracula, The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Screwtape Letters – as early forms of the dialogue novel, where they contain letters responding to one another. What was so compelling about that form – the writing of novels as if they were composed of letters, newspaper articles, and diaries – was that it augmented the illusion of reality that all readers – postmodernism be damned – want to lose themselves in. When we read a novel in first-person, eavesdropping on a private letter they have written and its return correspondence, we are convinced more fully that this represents something real because the author vanishes more fully.
I think what cinema offers with its depictions of conversation is the illusion of immediacy. A letter is always a remnant of the past, a relic inscribed with the thoughts and feelings its author was thinking and feeling however long ago. But with movies, we watch the thinker and feeler speak in “real time”. That sense of being persistently present is what it is like for us to have our own conversations in real life. As much as I still hope to convince you of the general superiority of literature to cinema, this is a specific point film has in its favour – when I watch particular movies, I feel every time as if things could be different. This might be the time that Janet Leigh fights off the psycho in the shower, or this time Jesse and Céline won’t leave their fate to the stars but will have the sense to swap phone numbers at the end of the movie. Not that books don’t also have me believing the story might have changed since I last read it, but never quite as firmly or credulously as cinema does.
The immediacy of real life is pressing on me now, in fact. I have a signing to get to, and my agent is forever impersonating Alice’s white rabbit, fretting about being late. I realise I could wait and write you more, rather than sending this short note off, but I like knowing that my words are on their way to you and you will be reading them soon and replying.
Looking forward, always, to hearing from you,
I watched the first two Before movies again recently and noticed something, one of those seemingly small grains of detail that hold a world inside. In the first movie, there is that breath-held moment when Jesse reaches out to move Céline’s hair aside, which she hasn’t noticed falling in front of her face, and then she catches on and Jesse’s hand doesn’t make contact and he is flustered and it is brilliant. In the second movie, near the end, when Jesse is sadly staring out of the window, away from Céline, and she reaches out tentatively to touch his hair, but pulls back when he turns to look at her. Two broken moments – the first on a bus, the second in a car – in which one reaches out to the other but doesn’t quite make contact. The movies are talking to each other here, in dialogue between themselves.
I suppose it’s fair to say that all movies – and books, of course, and music and paintings, etc. – are in conversation with all other art. Everything an artist does now is responding in some way, sometimes directly and sometimes less so, to something someone has already done. Maybe that’s what all of culture is, an ongoing conversation amongst itself about itself. I don’t know, I’m distracted today, this might all be nonsense.
Only a week until your big day; you must be excited? And you keep asking to hear more of my life. The strange thing about writing like this is that you can’t tell that after jotting down that last sentence I sat for twenty minutes here at the kitchen table in my brother’s apartment, trying to work out what to tell you about my life, what would interest you and wouldn’t bore me to write about – a divorce tends to have one saying the same things over and over to different friends, and I think I’ve said enough on that for now.
Besides, you and I always managed to somehow talk about what matters by talking about movies. And now books, of course. So I will do myself a favour and read those that you told me about in your last letter, and we will have more to discuss together in our next letters.
Would it be strange to sign off by writing that I miss you? Not strange, really, because we often miss even people we haven’t known in decades when they come up in thought for some reason. But it seems a little socially inept to admit it unless you are still very close. Oh well – I miss you.
I don’t know what to say about the question mark closing what would be, from anyone else, a statement of presumed excitement on my part about my wedding. Why transform it into a question in that way? Do you believe I am unsure of my own feelings, or do you hope to insinuate that uncertainty into things? In either case, it was an unnecessarily thoughtless move on your part, and although you clearly would prefer to keep some safe distance from an honest appraisal of your inner life – and sharing any of it with me – by chatting endlessly about movies and books, I had to confront this head on.
I am getting married this weekend. Say what you have to say, or forever hold your damned peace.
I never watched the last movie, Before Midnight. I was – and still am – waiting to watch it with you.
He asks himself the same question every time the metaphorical curtain rises at the start of a movie, when cinema echoes the cosmos and emerges from darkness to fill reality with the drama of life: What is the director telling me? What is he or she saying with this opening?
Audio first: a garbled tannoy announcement in Greek, unintelligible to this particular viewer and there are no subtitles, although this is an English-language movie, but he is somehow firmly rooted in a place of mass transit via some subliminal universal language of airports and train stations. A sudden snap to the first shot: two pairs of feet strolling side by side. Dialogue and movement, the paired substrates of this trilogy, the twin pillars on which rests everything Linklater is doing with these movies.
He has paused his hand mid-reach for the top layer of popcorn in the bowl in his lap, a few fluffed kernels rolling from the tip of the mound toward the rim of the dish. He is watching intently, listening closely to the cinematic language, paying attention to what this movie is telling him. This is a conversation he has not had before; this is his first time watching Before Midnight.
As he finds his stride in the tempo of this opening scene, he finally puts a few of the popcorn pieces into his mouth, chewing between the character’s sentences so as not to mask what they’re saying. In spite of all this effort to engage as deeply as he can, his mind drifts on a current of free-association towards the book he finished reading last week. It most likely would not exist without the movie he is trying to watch right now.
She took its themes and transformed them into what she called a “narrative response”, creating characters in her first work of fiction to explore what her non-fiction had been interested in for two decades. The story was their story, the story of two people who have only words with which to reach each other and yet fail to communicate. Letters and straight dialogue, some footnotes, the whole postmodern bag of tricks. There are even a few subtle references to the Before trilogy embedded in the story.
On the screen, there is a transition to a new scene, outside of the airport, and there is Julie Delpy waiting for Ethan Hawke beside a car. The film goes on, as does the conversation.
Still watching the film, he lifts the bowl and holds it out to her expectant hand beside him, which pinches the popcorn and pops it into her mouth. She wants to thank him for sharing the snack, but she knows he hates it when anyone says anything at all while a movie is playing. She loves that about him. She wants to thank him for waiting so long to watch this movie; she wishes she had waited too. But here they are, at last, and she can thank him later. The film plays on, and so does the conversation.
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• Before Sunrise, dir. Richard Linklater (1995)
• Before Sunset, dir. Richard Linklater (2004)
• Before Midnight, dir. Richard Linklater (2013)
• 2 Days in Paris, dir. Julie Delpy (2007)
• ‘Joker Director Todd Phillips Rebuffs Criticism of Dark Tone: We Didn’t Make the Movie to Push Buttons’, in www.thewrap.com (2019)