A Time for Talk: Looking Back at Richard Linklater’s “Before” Series

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Though his most recent triumph is Boyhood (2014), Houston native Richard Linklater is also the auteur behind the trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013). The first of these films had its twentieth anniversary back in the summer, so I’m “looking back” a bit belatedly. And a big *WARNING*: Because this essay is concerned with the narrative arc of the “Before” series, it necessarily contains several plot spoilers. I would strongly urge you to watch the films FIRST before reading any further.

Few current directors, perhaps with the exception of Noah Baumbach, have mastered the art of dialogue as much as Richard Linklater. Hyper-educated and loquacious, Linklater’s characters set forth on a verbal trajectory as seemingly random as the nomadic paths they take—whether it’s Austin, Texas or Vienna, Austria. Particularly in the “Before” series, running off at the mouth is not only the modus operandi but the source of tension between characters, since “talk” often appears to be a replacement for “action.” In actuality, though, Linklater makes a finer distinction between types of talk, inviting us to examine how a character’s tendencies, personality, and motivations might be reflected in conversation.

For example, through the three films, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) continually uses pseudo-intellectual analogies to dodge Céline’s (Julie Delpy) tough questions about love and relationships in general. However, we might make an exception for Jesse’s “time-traveller” analogy from the first film, Before Sunrise (1995), since this fantastical scenario ends up functioning as a potential solution to their marital strife in the third film, Before Midnight (2013). In the closing scene of that final film, Jesse and Celine both seem to understand that the “fantasy” created by talk enables them to imaginatively pass over the rough patches and return to a better time.

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Before Sunrise

The first bit of dialogue in Before Sunrise is a German couple in a terrible argument—an incident that, ironically, brings Jesse and Celine together. Of course, the scene foreshadows the conclusion to the final film, where the future Jesse and Celine have their own terrible spat, which threatens to dissolve the union entirely. Nevertheless, Linklater seems to be saying that “talk” brings people together as much as it tears them apart. When it comes to the smoldering war that often takes place between couples, silence seems to be the worst scenario.

During the early train dialogue, Celine throws out the first of many philosophical theories about coupledom that turns out to foreshadow her and Jesse’s relationship: “As couples get older, they lose their ability to hear each other.” This observation is directed towards the arguing German couple, but, later in the film, it seems applicable to Jesse and Celine. In an extended confab, this time on their bus ride, Jesse succeeds in not answering in a straightforward way any of Celine’s questions: after asking about her pet-peeves, Celine gives a nice, concrete list, while he diverges into a lecture on reincarnation. He might literally hear Celine, but he’s choosing to dodge her question, showing that he’s not willing to match the honesty he demands from her. Again, this issue comes up in the final film, where dodging seems a bad response to a direct question about fidelity.

There is, then, dramatic irony—apparent only once we’ve watched the three films—when Jesse, in one of his more elaborate analogies, asks Celine to imaginatively “jump ahead ten, twenty years,” when “marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have,” and when she’s thinking about “all those guys” that she could have got together with. “I’m one of those guys,” he boldly proposes: “Think of this as time travel, from then to now.” She might discover, he continues, that he is “just as big a loser” as her current—that is, future— husband is.

The analogy is, of course, flirtatious and intended to convince Celine to join a complete stranger for a day-long odyssey through Vienna. And it also turns out, once we get to the third film, that Jesse himself is the future “loser” husband. But he doesn’t seem to realize the genuinely restorative power of such a fantasy—that such time-travel has the capacity to rejuvenate the old flame of romance. He is a romantic, no doubt, but he fails to see how important that role will be for Celine, who wants this very thing in her life—not the distant, cynical position Jesse tends to oscillate towards.

Moreover, in Before Sunrise, potentially “serious” conversations come across as playful banter. When Jesse later asks Celine what “bothers” her about him—and not just her pet-peeves about the world, about society—the joke seems to be that these are two 20-somethings having the sort of conversation that an adult married couple might have (a moment that once more looks ahead to the future). They have the luxury of talking in this freewheeling way, taking advantage of the fact that they are relative strangers. They’re both aware that they need not “act” on anything since they’ll likely never see each other again; no promises are required. And so, the serious subjects keep coming up, with neither party feeling any pressure to account for the consequences of their views.

The intriguing effect, however, is that the banter reveals each character’s personality—something reinforced in the second film and solidified in the third and final film. For example, in the first film Jesse makes fun of people with “romantic projections”; and then, when Celine teases him about his own romantic gestures, he literally dodges her, jumping onto a merry-go-round. She confesses to him: “Loving someone and being loved means so much to me.” Jesse’s rejoinder, though said in a sort of hypothetical realm, where their coupledom is not a fact so much as a potentiality, resonates throughout the sequels: “If I’m totally honest with myself, I think I’d rather die knowing I was really good at something, that I had excelled in some way, than that I’d just been in a nice, caring relationship.”

The final repartee in this revelatory exchange is important: Celine tells a story about an older man she had worked for who had spent all of his life “thinking about his career.” It “suddenly struck him,” Celine concludes, “that he had never really given any of himself.” The discovery we make here is that Jesse is a romantic, but one who uses his career ambitions to maintain distance. As David Sims puts it in his own retrospective essay for The Atlantic, Jesse possesses a “mix of earnestness and aloof self-awareness.”

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Before Sunset

If we’re paying attention, or at least keeping track by rewatching the first film, we see how in Before Sunset this “talk” turns out to be the basis for each character’s future decisions. At the outset of the second film, we don’t know for sure how important Jesse’s writing career is to him and whether or not he is willing to sacrifice a relationship for being “really good at something.” Nor do we know at first whether Celine still feels the need for the mutual love she valued in her twenties or, indeed, whether she’s experienced it. But we do know that their current lives bear the traces of the values they embraced nine years earlier.

In the first instance, Jesse becomes the romantic figure we suspect he is, though he nevertheless maintains distance through his books; this fact is not entirely apparent until the third film. He claims that he used his book This Time, which recounts his romantic 24 hours with Celine nine years earlier, to try to “find” Celine, but now that he has found her, he’s married. More distance, though he doesn’t register this fact.

Celine, for her part, appreciates his romantic gesture, but admits: “When someone is always around, I’m… suffocating.” She adds that she doesn’t like to be with someone and feel “lonely.” It becomes clear that, true to the Celine we met in the first film, loving and losing too many times has damaged her. Her current man seems to value his career more than his time with her. Ironically, then, Celine becomes the cynic Jesse claimed to be, while Jesse becomes the romantic Celine appeared to be. But again, these trajectories follow a path laid out in the first film: Jesse thrives by maintaining distance from his object of affection, while Celine languishes from that very same distance.

At the climax of Before Sunset, Celine makes an accurate charge, which should remind us not to get too caught up in the game of romance, especially if feelings are hurt in the process: “You come here to Paris all romantic and married.” This is a fact, not an argument, and Jesse stands accused; when Jesse decides to miss his plane—implied in the final scene of the film, where Celine charmingly does her best Nina Simone impression—we have to register another fact: their relationship is built on infidelity.

So, from the perspective of the later films, the audience is able to see that the apparently juvenile speculations in Before Sunrise actually had substance: the experiences of the 30-ish Jesse and Celine in Before Sunset begin to support this argument. On the one hand, talking practically ruins the relationship; on the other hand, it might be the only thing that can repair the damage.

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Before Midnight

Jesse’s talk in Before Midnight reinforces his youthful strategy of dodging serious topics, of living life through books, as we see in his lengthy and—let’s face it—self-indulgent conversation about his upcoming projects. His third book, he tells his admirers as they lounge in the Grecian sun, has the pretentious title Temporary Cast Members of a Long-Running But Little Seen Production of a Little Play Called “Fleeting. His romantic pose, once a subject of teasing, becomes a thorny issue in the third film where the humour is acidic or laced with venom.

Though Celine’s attempt at playing a “bimbo” functions as a humorous antic for her hosts at the Peloponnesian vacation house, the incident reinforces how much Jesse uses his books and pseudo-intellectual conversation to woo women: “So you write, like, books? Wow, I’ve never met a writer before. You must be really smart… You must really have a big…” The men—Jesse included—are clearly aroused by this charade, and it serves to point out the problem of too much talk, or, as Celine puts it, joking when she is “trying to connect,” “contemplat[ing] the universe” while she takes care of everyone, including their twin girls and Jesse himself.

If anything, talk seems to have put the relationship in jeopardy: Jesse appears to be taking Celine lightly, placing his work before her; and Celine appears to be taking Jesse too seriously, assuming his banter and pseudo-intellectual analogies are without substance. Both of them are in the wrong, though it’s strongly hinted that Jesse has cheated on Celine during one of his book tours, reminding us that he is still unwilling to be as honest and faithful as she has been. Things come to a head when Celine, who cannot get a straight answer about the infidelity and who feels pressured to give up her career for Jesse, tells him, “I don’t think I love you anymore.” This might not be quite the case of “As couples get older, they lose their ability to hear each other”; but they’ve clearly lost the ability to thrive by their conversation.

Or have they? In a last-ditch effort to save the relationship, Jesse goes into full charmer mode—a move that seems destined to fail horribly, given the suggestion that he’s used the same tactics to seduce younger, less intelligent women to sleep with him. He finds an apparently resolute and cold Celine, at a table by herself, and claims to be a time traveller—indeed, “Jesse from 1994.” Though she’s at first resistant to the ploy, she eventually plays along, telling Jesse, this “messenger” from the future: “I vaguely remember someone sweet and romantic who made me feel like I wasn’t alone anymore.” The confession is powerful since it both accuses Jesse of failing in his mission and validates his original role as the “romantic.”

However, I disagree with Richard Brody’s argument in New Yorker that, in these films, Linklater is not willing to question “his secular faith in an idealized vision of love.” Idealized love—if it was ever a real pursuit of either Jesse or Celine—is precisely challenged by adult experience, even to the point where cynicism begins to creep in. Jesse, for his part, confesses, though he refers to himself in the third person: “he’s struggled his whole life connecting and being present even with those he loves the most.” Moreover, just as “talk” is both the problem and solution, so is time-travel itself—it can potentially elide serious problems that need attention, but it can also allow one to pass over or through the barriers that prevent a relationship from evolving. Moreover, I see a more nuanced approach than Brody allows.

The whole final sequence in Before Midnight—the time travel, the role as a “messenger” from the future, and the pretend letter he reads from the napkin—might be a “game,” which Celine is of course very suspicious of, but it is also a humbling confession for Jesse. The letter is also obviously a come-on: her ass will look great at 82, future-Jesse claims; she will, he adds, have the best sex of her life this very night. And so on. Is this is the same old artful dodger? It seems that Celine won’t go for it, that the relationship will end right there.

But then, after a painful sequence of silence where neither can look the other in the eyes, something magical happens. Celine turns to him and asks, “So what about this time machine? Are we going to have to get naked to operate it?” It’s impossible to know what has happened in the moment of silence—what resolution Celine has come to, and if she has decided to forgive Jesse. But I’d like to think that she’s gone back in time and remembered that 20-something romantic, relived the experience, and now has agreed to time-travel with him. The final line seems to support this: “It must have been one night we’re about to have.”

A message in Before Midnight is that time might be “fleeting,” but it can also be navigated—through the mind, through words, through fantasy. That is to say that, for Linklater, talk is action—it’s the mouth actually moving, sending words across time and space. This was the discovery in Before Sunrise, and now, twenty years later, it seems worthwhile having talked about it again.

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