Photo by Isabel Cruz
I think that one of the greatest feelings in life is that feeling when you meet someone new and hit it off. It’s a feeling of excitement and unease. You’re engaged yet reserved. These moments are the perfect balance between unpredictable awkwardness and predictable comfort, a balance that exists at only a specific point in a relationship. Whether you believe that these moments are an act of God or chance or fate, they’re extremely special and unreplicable, because as time passes, this feeling naturally fades and you settle into a place of familiarity. For better or for worse.
There’s a quote from Julie Delpy’s character in Before Sunrise that I think perfectly describes this feeling: “I believe if there’s any kind of God, it wouldn’t be in any of us…not you or me, but just in this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. The answer must be in the attempt.”
The experience of forming a strong connection with someone new feels like everything in our life has perfectly aligned for us to be this person. It’s almost spiritual, and it’s one of the driving forces in our life as social creatures.
One of the best depictions of the experience of human connection in cinema is shown in Richard Linklater’s The Before Trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Each of the movies in the series takes place nine years apart in both its cinematic universe and in the real-life production of the films.
I think that these films excel due to their untraditional narrative structure. Unlike most movies, specifically romance movies, the director attempts to illustrate the dynamics of a relationship through major plot points and the couple’s interactions with each other and with people outside of their relationship. The Before Trilogy opposes this structure by allowing us to get to know the characters through the conversations that they have with each other. Just pure conversation. No major events or secondary characters. It’s the epitome of a film where arguably “nothing happens” but in terms of connection, so much happens.
The first film in the series, Before Sunrise, follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student. They both meet while on the train to Vienna and on a whim, they decide to get off and spend the rest of the night together. The film encapsulates the novelty of a new relationship. The initial attraction and interest and the journey of getting to know each other. The “honeymoon stage” of a relationship as it’s often called. The film does a sort of world-building through the conversations the characters have with each other shown through impressive one-take shots lasting as long as eleven minutes. However it’s not fantastical as most world-building is, instead, it’s based in the world that we know, but with each minute that Jesse and Celine talk, we as the audience feel more and more like we are getting to know them just as well as they are. We are sucked into a world where two twenty-year-olds are walking around Vienna, falling in love and neither you nor they really want the time together to end.
Before Sunset revisits Jesse and Celine nine years later when they run into each other in Paris. Like Before Sunrise, the film is one long conversation between Jesse and Celine as they catch up with each other but unlike the previous film, the second installment of the series does not feel as magical. It’s clear that they love each other, but now, they are both in separate relationships, and we feel disappointed that they might not get their happy ending. This film made me sob like no other. It’s realistic and It’s a reminder that the magic of their night in Vienna can not last forever. We are shown that relationships change and maybe it won’t all work out no matter how strong a connection might be.
If the point of Before Sunrise was to show how we might idealize relationships in real life and movies, the final film in the trilogy gives us a reality check. Before Midnight shows what it means to be in a relationship with another person after all the excitement and awkwardness is long worn out. The story of Jesse and Celine is no longer like a stereotypical fairytale. It might have started that way, but Linklater reminds us that time affects our lives in ways that we can’t control.
I think that The Before Trilogy is the ultimate depiction of a romantic relationship, and it was able to achieve that through its use of conversation as well as the time that spans over the three films. We not only see the beauty and power a new connection holds but we see how a moment that feels so perfect and impenetrable is in fact extremely vulnerable and can shift over time into something unrecognizable. Like Celine, I do think that meaning in our lives can come from the attempt of understanding someone, no matter how it might turn out in the end.