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Monday, June 17, 2013

Reviews: The "Before" Series - Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight

Three Films, Eighteen Years, and One Magical Encounter

By Chris Sabga

Five other people were with me in the theater when I went to see "Before Midnight." All five walked out. Life can be tough, and this movie pulls no punches about that. From the moment Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) appear together again, it feels different in the air somehow; their dialogue carries with it a much a sharper edge this time. They are no longer the lovestruck young pups we first met eighteen years ago. They've had time together, and the comfort that comes along with it – but that can be a double-edged sword. In one scene, Celine remarks that men believe in magic. We do. Jesse still does too. After the incredible chance meeting he had on a train when he was only 23, it's easy to see why.  

Before Sunrise (1995)

Rarely is a film's promotional material anything more than mere marketing fluff with a few carefully chosen buzzwords – but whoever wrote the back cover for the DVD of "Before Sunrise" understood its allure and conveyed it perfectly.

"Love is their destination. On the way there's the mutual sharing of hopes, jokes, dreams, worry and wonder. It's a day to linger in their memories. And a valentine to young love forever."

An experience so magical, it obviously managed to capture even a random ad-writer's heart. It certainly captured mine.

The story of two young people, Jesse and Celine, randomly meeting on a train and exploring Vienna together cannot help but fascinate, inspire, and warm even the most jaded of hearts.

There are no big twists or turns. There isn't an explosion anywhere in sight. There's simply a conversation.

Two strangers walking and talking, getting to know each other, and becoming more smitten with each passing syllable and step.  

Hawke and Delpy are perfect in their roles. Not just good, not just excellent, but perfect.

As I wrote previously: When "Before Sunrise" was released in 1995, there was nothing else quite like it. It was and remains one of the truly great "silver screen surprises."

At the time, no one could have ever imagined that Jesse and Celine would ever meet again on screen. Movies like this simply didn't get sequels. This one did.  But it took nine years.

Before Sunset (2004)

Jesse has never forgotten that night in Vienna with Celine. Neither has anyone else who's ever seen "Before Sunrise." Nine years later, Jesse is an author – and his book about that one magical encounter brings Celine back into his life. This time, they're in France.

They were supposed to meet again much sooner. Why didn't they? That particular conversation is beautifully awkward and feels incredibly true.

Jesse and Celine are almost a decade older now. "Before Sunset" expertly uses the realities of life to subtly chip away at the picture-perfect connection they shared in "Sunrise" – something that doesn't become as obvious until viewed through the lens of the third film, "Before Midnight."

In a telling scene in "Sunset," Celine criticizes Jesse for acting like a "little boy" at one point during their previous meeting in Vienna. It's such a quick flash of pettiness – over almost in an instant – and yet it seems so jarring and out of place. Little did we know at the time that such clouded judgmental thinking would eventually come to dominate Celine's entire personality.

However, "Sunset" never erodes the gentle love shared by its two characters. Their chemistry remains as magical as ever.

But magic is an illusion.

Before Midnight (2013)

The film opens with Jesse and his almost 14-year-old son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) walking through an airport. Celine is nowhere in sight. That alone is telling. It becomes immediately obvious that everything has changed.

When Jesse and Celine finally do meet up, they don't actually get to be alone with each other until the second half of the film. That's another monumental difference between "Before Midnight" and its previous chapters.

Some of their conversations – especially with other people – border on being overly pretentious, but those moments are fleeting and entirely forgivable from such a dialogue-driven film. Maybe the other "Before" movies were that way too and I'm just more jaded now – much like Jesse and Celine themselves.

In "Midnight," Celine is obnoxious, unbearable, and impossible to please – a drastic and depressing change from her sunny sweetness in "Sunrise" and "Sunset."

She has become the kind of person who makes blowjob jokes inside a church, even though the love of her life is a "closet Christian."

There is a conversation about the tragic fate of Joan of Arc at one point. With the way Celine is carrying on, it's easy to wish the same for her.

But I'm a man. Women who see the film might find fault with Jesse instead. Of course, he is far from flawless himself. That's the point, I think. Regardless of whose perspective you lean toward, these characters have created enough goodwill over the past eighteen years and two previous movies that I ultimately wanted both of them to succeed – together.

Life is full of disappointments. In some ways, this movie is one of them. I don't want to watch people argue for two hours! Listening to an angry couple sniping and bickering about family issues is simply not my idea of a good time. That certainly wouldn't be considered entertaining in any other setting.

Still, the acting remains as breathtaking ever and the dialogue once again kept me glued to the screen from beginning to end. It's real. It's raw. Life can't always be the fairy tale presented in the other two films (especially the first). If there are still several more "Before" movies to be made, this could end up becoming a very important and necessary part of the series. Until then, though, I can only view "Midnight" and its characters as they are currently.

Yet, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I actually feel flashes of real anger at times. I almost wish I could go up to Jesse (a fictional character, mind you) and offer him my support and a listening ear. A movie that inspires such raw emotion in its audience – especially when most don't – is obviously doing something right. It's challenging and conflicting. Isn't that what great cinema is supposed to be?
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The title of each film expresses more than I previously realized. In 1995, Jesse and Celine were 23 and about to enter the sunrise of their lives. Nine years later, the optimism of youth was still present, but they were older now. That meeting was perhaps their last before they entered the sunset phase that inevitably comes with age and experience. But midnight is a dark time. It's when the magic wears off for Cinderella. It has, too, for Jesse and Celine. The slipper is off Celine's foot – metaphorically but also literally in one pivotal scene. However, midnight is also a time filled with mystery and wonder. Can their relationship regain that, or will it indeed be darkest Before Dawn?

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