28th Oct2019

‘The Before Trilogy’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Erni Mangold, Vernon Dobtcheff, Xenia Kalogeropoulou | Written by Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Kim Krizan | Directed by Richard Linklater


Plaudits to Richard Linklater for his epic Boyhood, famously filmed over many years – a feat one day to be replicated with his Stephen Sondheim adaptation, Merrily We Roll Along. But he kind of already did it with his “Before” Trilogy: Sunrise (1995), Sunset (2004) and Midnight (2013), in each of which we catch a glimpse of a passionate relationship between two lovers at different times in their lives.

Before Sunrise opens with the initial meet-cute between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), two twenty-something dreamers lounging on a long-distance train. They have a connection. Not some magical sense of entitlement, but a simple chemistry and a shared worldview. They jump off in Vienna, and then walk the city streets through the night, directionless, talking, kissing, and occasionally arguing.

That’s the whole shebang, and necessarily so. Though beautifully directed, shot and lit, Linklater allows nothing to intrude on the couple’s courting. His lens is quiet, and his leads do produce a kind of magic together. It’s the magic of two decent, thoughtful, attractive people simply getting along. They’re almost oblivious to the alien place they inhabit, and the oddballs they meet serve only as diversions – or possibly entry points to greater understanding of each other.

It’s a film about the power of talking and flirting, stripped to its bare humanist essentials, reminiscent of the old French New Wave films of Jean-Luc Godard or Eric Rohmer. The only real drama is the growing concern that these beautiful young things will never see each other again. But then, given the definition of a trilogy, I suppose some of that tension is lost.

In some ways, what’s lost in Before Sunset, the second part of the trilogy, is some of Jesse and Celine’s naiveté and innocence. They have baggage now. Adult concerns. They smoke. Sunset starts idyllic, with soft focus shots of picturesque Paris streets, and with each character appearing to be blissfully happy. Yet as the pair spend eighty precious minutes in each other’s company, it is revealed that they are essentially miserable; not living their best lives.

Briefer, punchier, and a little more acerbic than the original, the ex-lovers discuss how people change over time – or, more specifically, how they essentially don’t, highlighting a chief concern of Linklater’s. In a way, the roles of the first film are reversed here. Jesse is more patient and Celine more talkative. Jesse is the optimist (“Every day is our last!”), while Celine seems more disillusioned, wounded even. They discuss the nature of memory, because they’re old enough now to have some.

In one of the most interesting exchanges, they raise the possibility that the reason they have such a connection – such a spark – is precisely because they’re not around each other all the time. Here it gets kind of meta: they are living a Hollywood romance. They are experiencing each other in motion, like two shooting stars touching momentarily in the vast sky. Their connection, they suspect, is thrilling because it’s a break from their unsatisfying norms.

The film ends in Celine’s apartment (shabby chic before it was a thing) on an ambiguous and morally questionable note. Sunset might be the difficult second album, but it’s a vital steppingstone in the story of these characters, who are by this point a bit of a marvel – Linklater has managed to make two films about two privileged, white middle class liberals smart, rather than smart-ass.

The concluding (for now) part of the saga is Before Midnight. Podgier, possibly wiser, and certainly more argumentative, part three finds Jesse and Celine on holiday in Greece. They’re virtually married now, with two daughters in tow.

Before Midnight is the longest, saddest, and most expansive of the trilogy – and quite possibly the best. All the weight of their age and experience has become quite the burden upon their relationship. Linklater’s technical skill has come a long way, so we see a greater range of shot lengths and more variety in the editing than before, as well as a wider cast of characters. No longer is all the heavy emotional lifting left solely to the main couple. Natalia’s (Xenia Kalogeropoulou) “passing through” speech is one of the film’s most touching moments.

The discussions and monologues reflect the advancing age of the characters, so this time around we cover monogamy, romance, masculinity, passion, decline – all the juicy stuff. The film culminates with one of the great arguments in all cinema: an enthralling and convincing barney-to-end-all-barneys, full of wounding barbs and withering sarcasm and “beautiful energy”, lasting twenty solid minutes. It’s Linklater’s Endgame action sequence, and the thrilling reward for a series of films which have truly earned our empathy.

Love, I believe the saga concludes, is not some transcendental magic that will cure all conflicts and bridge all rifts, but an almighty labour of commitment – an effort of devotion equal to religious faith – and the reward is revelatory.

I have no doubt that Linklater and his co-writers and stars, Hawke and Delpy, will return to these characters in a few years’ time. But even if they don’t, what they achieved with this trilogy is no less than triumphant. Put simply, there’s no more intelligent, intimate, bittersweet love story in film, and it will live on as the perennial antidote to trite Hollywood romance.


  • New, restored 2K digital transfers of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and a 2K digital master of Before Midnight, approved by director Richard Linklater, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Before Sunrise Blu-ray and 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Before Sunset and Before Midnight Blu-rays
  • New discussion featuring Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, moderated by critic Kent Jones
  • Behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from the productions of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset
  • Audio commentary on Before Midnight by Delpy, Linklater, and Hawke
  • Dream Is Destiny, a 2016 feature-length documentary about Linklater by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein
  • New documentary about the making of Before Midnight in Greece by filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari
  • 3×2, a new conversation between scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone about Linklater’s work
  • Linklater // On Cinema & Time, a video essay by filmmaker “:: kogonada”
  • PLUS: An essay on the trilogy by critic Dennis Lim

The Before Trilogy is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 28th October 2019.


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