The Criterion Component: Time in Flux in Richard Linklater's The Before Trilogy
“I like to feel his eyes on me when I look away.”
Richard Linklater’s interest in continuous temporality is an obvious one. You only need to give *any* of his films a spin for his obsession to take hold. Although his experimentation with time within evolving interactions and environments would peak with the elongated, shaggy developments of Boyhood, the filmmaker — who would soon be criticized for his ethos during, oddly enough, his most recent output as an artist — happened to have already mined a rich, unbeatable, and brilliant diamond of a trilogy about a boy and a girl, a man and a woman, and a couple. They’re the same two people, of course, but before Linklater fully committed to the idea of observing actors grow within a sustained period, he posed a romantic premise in different stages of life, and left anything extraneous unseen but not unsaid. It’s a set of films running in practically real-time, lost in the clumsy yet beautiful dance of conversation. But the distance between each installment allows for an unspoken acknowledgement of what we’ve missed as spectators, and how relationships switch suddenly as well as gradually, within the span of a single scene or across the blank canvas of a decade.
The Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise in 1995, Before Sunset in 2004, and Before Midnight in 2013) should arguably be best approached as Linklater’s grappling of the cinematic boundaries in which he wrestles with and builds to his advantage. These films would not work as Boyhood-esque documents. Their wonder and bottled energy relies on the baggage of various stages and the interest in the present-tense. What a lot of what Jesse and Celine, marvelously performed as individual entities and a united whole by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, say (and yell) to each other in Before Midnight, the third film (and presumably final?) in the trilogy, was burrowed deep within their manufactured memory-banks. The audience is always passive, on the outside looking in, and some of it is pretty, some of it is not. The importance of each gesture and of each word uttered is enormous; not merely for the sake of their relationship stability, but for the viewer’s perception of where they stand and where they’re going. Linklater’s exploration enhances slices of life into grand, ever-flowing moments of intimacy, always interested in the mundanity of the rituals of the world and finding its particularities sublime. By giving time a constant, foreboding force, the beauty of the ordinary finds a place, and what is skipped past immediately becomes melancholic — a life shared between two people, only captured in glimpses.
That’s the ultimate success of The Before Trilogy: the evocation of these prolonged, unfiltered pieces. A chance meeting in Vienna, a second encounter in Paris, a long-needed vacation away from life’s formalities; each bring a snapshot of a specific couple in love, and how the stages of their individual selves influence compromise in a relationship dynamic. Through this study, like many Linklater films, reflection sets in, and relatability becomes conflict. What do these films say about your life? Where are you in their trajectory? Do they speak to some basic understanding of love, or is it something else? The questions are rhetorical in Linklater’s universe even as Jesse and Celine have similar ponderings, but they’re prominent because of his craft and his conception of ideas/structure. The way he captures two souls wandering down a side-street in early-early-morning, drawn towards the body of the other like planetary gravity, is nothing less than emblematic of his desire to bring specific feelings back to their essence. Because of an examination of two defined characters, you’re thinking about your lost love, the one who got away, the person by your side, and what they adore, what they loathe, what they think and fight for and burst with passion towards.
It’s the little things that sends appreciation and a swooning, enrapturing chill down your spine, and Linklater ignites those moments by naturally letting the actors work and giving them the voice to find such movements within the page. The genuine, unpretentious musicality of The Before Trilogy doesn’t burst in discussion, but in the in-between spaces. Just because Jesse and Celine may be flawed, egotistical people of aspiration and nonconformity doesn’t mean the films necessarily are. The fondness and warmth between the two is plainly seen as a symphony of glances, hugs, and kisses, peppered with a magnetic energy found in their physical fissure as they stroll. Time thickens in The Before Trilogy, almost rising to a material stature, because with Jesse and Celine, it’s all they have. Their existing instant gives them each other.