Can’t get enough Céline and Jesse? The Best Films of Our Lives has got you covered. Apprentice Critic Elaine Teng recently watched the entirety of Linklater’s trilogy, for the first time; here are some of her thoughts on the series.
There’s a moment in “Before Sunrise,” when protagonists Céline and Jesse walk through a Viennese cemetery Céline once visited as a child. There, she pauses to muse over the grave of a young girl she remembers from her previous visit. “She was only 13 when she died. That meant something to me, you know. I was around that age when I first saw this,” she says. “Now I’m 10 years older and she’s still 13, I guess. That’s funny.”
I saw “Before Sunrise” for the first time recently, at age 23, and it meant something to me. Not that I have ever met a beautiful stranger on a train and spent a romantic night with him wandering European streets, but the meandering conversations between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) brought forth memories of similar conversations I have had with friends. From family history to the fear of death to anxiety about the future, their conversations capture the power and potential of youth, and more importantly, how scary that moment of possibility is. People are always going on about the idealism and precociousness of youth, how our lives are a blank page waiting to be written, but no one really talks about how utterly and thoroughly terrifying that can be. When you think you can do anything, there’s a real chance of doing nothing at all. Surely that must be better than choosing the wrong thing, right?
And therein lies the power of the “Before Sunrise” movies. Not only do they sensitively capture this moment of youth, but they don’t stop there. Alone, “Before Sunrise” was a dreamy, smart story of boy-meets-girl made more beautiful and poignant by its ephemerality. By adding “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight,” each nine years apart in real and film time, director Richard Linklater and company have shown us what happens to love as time goes on, providing a remarkable continuum rarely seen in movies. Movies about young people falling in love are a dime a dozen, and a few, such as Michael Haneke’s “Amour” deal with the difficulties and dignities of love and old age. But very few films track the same people and the same story for years to see what happens to these beautiful, hopeful young people over time. The story is really like any other, but it is this continuity—and the grace and intelligence of the script—that sets these movies apart. Unlike the little girl in the Viennese cemetery, Céline and Jesse age as we age, becoming our friends with whom we want to spend a few hours from time to time to see how their lives have unfolded. Really, Céline and Jesse’s problems are like anyone else’s, fretting about their kids, job promotions, and self-fulfillment, with worries and headaches leaking their lives away, but it is in their humanity if not in their individuality that we find meaning.
While “Before Sunrise” is my favorite of the three at the moment, I have a sneaking suspicion that this will change as I grow older, as my own life moves from sunrise towards sunset. I will certainly be revisiting Céline and Jesse in the future, not only to see if this hypothesis is true but also to seek comfort from the fearful inevitability of time and change. And I will be reminding myself of a scene near the end of “Before Midnight,” when Jesse reads Céline a “letter” from her 82-year-old self, in which she reminds herself of how beautiful her life currently is regardless of her stresses and worries. At 40, 20 seems so young, distant, and beautiful; at 80, 40 will too.