What the 'Before' Trilogy Gets Right About Relationships

Richard Linklater has a lot to teach us about falling and staying in love.

Before Sunset Linklater Hawke Delpy

Richard Linklater has a lot to teach us about falling and staying in love.

Most movies about romance lean pretty heavily on idealization. They allow us to escape from reality, to enjoy the magic of falling in love without the messy, boring bits that follow “happily ever after.” That’s why Richard Linklater made the Before trilogy to challenge these flat, unrealistic depictions of relationships. The films focus on Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who first fall in love on a spontaneous trip to Vienna, and each installment — separated by ten year intervals — captures a different facet of their relationship. According to Hawke, Before Sunrise ponders what might be; Before Sunset, what could or should be; Before Midnight, what is. The union of these three premises results in one of the most nuanced and authentic cinematic depictions of romantic relationships.

The Before Trilogy’s authenticity lies in its balanced perspective of love, which is fully fleshed out over the course of all three movies. Linklater challenges our idealized versions of romance, but he also reaffirms our belief in love. Gone are rom-com cliches and fairytale endings; as their relationship evolves, real-life complications ruthlessly test Jesse and Celine’s initial romance. But despite external obstacles — a plane to catch, a family to leave, a marriage to sustain — their connection constantly grows and evolves. The connection that Jesse and Celine share in Before Sunrise doesn’t look very much like the one they share by the end of Before Midnight, but Jesse explains that real love is tumultuous and ever-changing: “If you want true love,” he tells Celine, “then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”

Each of the three Before films captures a unique facet of romantic relationships. Before Sunrise creates an incubator for Jesse and Celine as they first discover their connection. “I feel like this is some dream world we’re in,” Jesse tells Celine. And they basically are— they float around Vienna on a whim, discovering the city and each other with little imposition from the outside world. There is little conflict, little plot; all of the film’s forward motion lies in their falling in love, pure and untainted. This captures the all-consuming intensity of the first spark of connection.

In Before Sunset, the pair is finally subject to the bummers of reality, just like the rest of us. When they reconnect for the first time in nearly a decade, they share their disillusionments and discontentments. They’ve got real responsibilities now — families, careers — and the suffocating weight of them makes real love look like a flimsy fantasy. But Before Sunset is also a testament to the rarity of true connection, and the importance of seizing it when we find it. “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there will be many people with whom you connect with. And later in life, you realize it only happens a few times,” Celine tells Jesse. Linklater deftly balances the burden of reality with the promise of romance and argues that real love can also be real life.

The trilogy’s final installment, Before Midnight, is perhaps its most “realistic,” in that Celine and Jesse’s connection has now weathered two decades and two children. This is Linklater’s celebration of life after happily ever after, which — though less ethereal than it was on that Vienna night in 1993 — is still worth living. If Before Sunrise takes place in a distraction-free incubator, then Before Midnight takes place in the middle of quotidian chaos. Linklater shows that true connection cannot only withstand this chaos but can grow from it, even be nourished by it. Over eighteen years, Jesse and Celine’s lives naturally become more complicated, but from this complication, their connection transforms and deepens. We first see them discover a connection. We leave them as they have committed their lives in service of that connection.

This is Linklater’s biggest triumph in depicting relationships: he doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to conflict. Instead, he embraces it as a natural and nourishing part of relationships, and he emphasizes conversation as the most crucial tool in overcoming it. He shows us the real world within which relationships must exist, but he promises us that true connection can survive reality — that’s what makes it the real deal. Check out the video essay below from Like Stories of Old, which goes even deeper to explore the nuances of Jesse and Celine’s enduring romance, and what it can teach us about our own relationships.

Writer, college student, television connoisseur.