The cornerstone of the career-long exploration of cinematic time by director Richard Linklater, this celebrated three-part romance captures a relationship as it begins, begins again, deepens, strains, and settles over the course of almost two decades. Chronicling the love of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), from their first meeting as idealistic twentysomethings to the disillusionment they face together in middle age, The Before Trilogy also serves as a document of a boundary-pushing and extraordinarily intimate collaboration between director and actors, as Delpy and Hawke, who cowrote two of the films, imbue their characters with a sense of raw, lived-in experience, and as they age on-screen along with them. Attuned to the sweeping grandeur of time’s passage as well as the evanescence of individual moments, the Before films chart the progress of romantic destiny as it navigates the vicissitudes of ordinary life.
"Let me sing you a waltz…"
Examined as individual pieces, moments are the essence of transience. Fleeting and ephemeral, they simply ebb and flow into one another -- so brief and indistinct it's hard to even say where one starts and another stops. But looked at as a greater whole, and a moment can take on the very shape of eternity, eschewing concepts of past and future in favor of a single, unified present. A single moment that has no clear end and no clear beginning. Attempting to carry audiences through this ever-expanding sense of now, Richard Linklater's wistfully romantic 'Before Trilogy' reveals the uncommon beauty of the ordinary, chronicling a once new relationship as it grows and changes over the span of eighteen years -- in front of and behind the camera. Through the three-part series, the director weaves a quietly affecting story about time and love. About a boy who met a girl on a train.
Each covering only about a day or less in the characters' lives, the installments all focus on the shifting romance between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as their relationship goes through different phases. 'Before Sunrise' (1995) chronicles the couple's first meeting in their twenties during an idyllic dalliance in Vienna. Nine years later, 'Before Sunset' (2004) then picks up as the pair reconnect after losing touch for nearly a decade. Finally, 'Before Midnight' (2013) closes the trilogy with a look at their domestic life and struggles to stay connected.
Marked by a palpable spark of idealistic romance, the first film essentially carries us through a series of youthful conversations and flirtations as Jesse and Celine first meet on a train and then quickly fall in love through the streets of Vienna while day becomes night and night becomes day. Filled with philosophical observations tied to many of Linklater's own fascinations with time, life, death, family, love, art, sex, politics, religion and everything else you're not supposed to bring up at a dinner party, the movie balances heady dialogue with a more matter-of-fact naturalism in its images and performances, laying the groundwork for the understated style that would go on to inform its sequels.
A style marked by frequent long, unbroken takes which hold on the characters as they sit, or follow them as they walk through the city -- allowing the actors, the camera and, by extension, the audience, to stay in the cinematic now uninterrupted. Presenting a hopeful film about what could be, Linklater's deceptively simple images and loose, dialogue driven narrative ultimately capture a romance just starting to blossom, filled with nervous, excited energy and unashamed optimism.
Potently compressing the first film's already modest scope to create the impression of real time, the second installment, 'Before Sunset,' now sees the couple reconnect over just 80 minutes. And though nine years have gone by, the characters pick up their conversation as if no time has passed at all, walking and talking while the camera strolls along with them. But despite the outward glow of magic hour, the gently melancholy shadow of missed opportunities still permeates the runtime, presenting a bittersweet movie that questions what could have been, layering its romance with nagging regret and burgeoning anticipation for a second chance. A second chance that is masterfully implied through a playfully ambiguous and utterly perfect finale.
But real relationships just don't fade to black at their apex. They carry on, grow, strengthen, change, and often strain if not tended to. Eschewing the more idealized romanticism of its predecessors, 'Before Midnight' tackles the sobering challenges of maintaining a domestic partnership after the honeymoon phase has ended. And though the film is still home to several loving sequences, the brunt of the narrative actually presents Jesse and Celine at odds with each other, organically weaving between conversations and arguments. In some ways quite hard to watch yet always absorbing and uncommonly honest, the movie avoids typical dramatic contrivances, finding fundamentally ordinary and believable reasons for the couple to fight -- making their dissonance all the more devastating as they are forced to stop looking to the past or future and instead address their present day realities.
Viewed as individual pieces, each instalment of 'The Before Trilogy' stands alone as a beautifully concentrated distillation of a particular phase in love, of a particular moment in time made achingly palpable by effortless direction and performances. But looked at as a greater whole, and the series becomes a more overarching cinematic examination of how those different phases and shifting moments relate and recur and blur and inform one another across a single instance. From the second Jesse and Celine start speaking on that train, up until and through the moment they argue in that hotel room, it's all really just one conversation.
As Linklater's cinematic examination of time gradually reveals, designations between moments are mostly immaterial. Who we were and who we are and who we will be cannot be separated -- whether part of an ever cascading tapestry of now, or merely the fading recollection of an old woman on her deathbed. For even as they fight, Jesse and Celine are still on that train somewhere in Vienna meeting for the very first time, still reconnecting through the streets of Paris, still wrestling with the hopeful spark of youth, still coping with the nagging cynicism of growth, still searching for the enduring romanticism of love -- still finding each other, all over and over again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'The Before Trilogy' in a three-disc set packaged in a cardboard box with spine number 856. Within the boxset, 'Before Sunrise,' 'Before Sunset,' and 'Before Midnight' are all presented on separate BD-50 Region A discs housed in individual foldout cases with spine numbers 857, 858, and 859 respectively. A booklet featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim is included as well.
All three films are presented in 1080p video in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. 'Before Sunrise' and 'Before Sunset' make their Blu-ray debuts with new, restored 2K transfers culled from 35mm interpositives, and 'Before Midnight' appears to be sourced from the same 2K digital master used on the previous Sony release. Though the movies' aesthetics can be inherently modest, these transfers offer an authentic and often times rather lovely HD presentation.
'Before Sunrise' carries a predominantly soft look, with a faintly fuzzy but still filmic quality marked by a light layer of grain (which appears a bit heavier in low light scenes). And though some wide shots do tend to lack the kind of distinct fine texture and dimension one usually associates with an HD image, close-ups present solid detail. Contrast is a little dim and colors appear a tad dull, but primaries carry decent saturation and black levels are solid. Thankfully, damage is essentially nonexistent outside of some fleeting specks here and there. While the comparatively soft detail and slightly faded look don't result in a traditionally impressive image, there are no signs of troublesome digital manipulation and, for all intents and purposes, this director approved transfer appears to be an authentic representation of the movie's intended style.
'Before Sunset' also provides a fairly soft image, this time marked by a diffuse glow that delicately layers the movie in the dreamy haze of magic hour. And though this intentional style once again leads to a relative lack of fine texture, the aesthetic suits the content perfectly while preserving a very light hint of grain. Colors veer toward a warm, golden tinge and contrast is balanced well, even if blacks aren't quite ink deep. Again, much like with 'Before Sunrise,' the picture mostly lacks sharp detail, but the transfer retains the intended style nicely.
Making the jump to contemporary digital photography via the Arri Alexa, 'Before Midnight' offers the most traditionally impressive HD image of the trilogy, providing a notable improvement in detail and depth with a sharp, nearly demo worthy picture. Fine textures and facial features are readily visible in close-ups and wide shots, and the beautiful Greek locals carry pleasing dimension. The color palette carries a slightly cooler cast compared to the previous entries in the series, but saturation is nicely balanced with a nice mixture of natural hues and lush touches of green, blue, and orange here and there. Again, blacks look ever so slightly elevated in some darker scenes, but overall contrast is handled well with pleasing whites. Major digital artifacts are absent, but there is perhaps a hint of shimmering visible around Celine's polka dot dress.
'Before Sunrise' is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Surround track. Meanwhile, 'Before Sunset' and 'Before Midnight' are presented with English DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks. Appropriately restrained but home to some delicate texture, these are subtly effective mixes, placing appropriate emphasis on the films' dialogue.
In general, all three films feature fairly similar, minimalist design work, though the overall sense of immersion does improve a little with each installment. Dialogue is clean, clear, and well prioritized throughout -- though I did detect some very minor edginess in the highs and some bleeding of speech to the left and right in the 2.0 surround track on 'Before Sunrise.' Outside of speech, ambiance is minimal on all the movies but appropriately spread through the soundstage when called for, sending wind, birds, and background clatter in streets and cafes softly around the room. 'Before Midnight' is the most expansive and spacious in this regard, but even then atmospherics are used sparingly. Notable bass activity is rare (as one might expect for movies of this type), but passing trains and cars do carry some heft. Likewise, when present, music comes through with pleasing fidelity, range, and nice separation.
Saying that 'The Before Trilogy' is a dialogue driven series would be an understatement, and these restrained audio mixes reflect that fact perfectly. Scope and ambience are quite minimal, but in this case, that's really as it should be.
Criterion has put together a fantastic collection of comprehensive supplements, including a commentary, a feature-length documentary about the director, vintage featurettes, retrospective interviews, and more. A treasure trove for fans of the series and Linklater's work as a whole, really the only item missing here for 'Before Trilogy' completists is the full Jesse and Celine scene from 'Waking Life' -- and though that would have been a great inclusion, it's an understandable omission. All of the special features are presented in 1080p or 1080i along with Dolby Digital audio.
Richard Linklater's 'Before Trilogy' presents a beautifully understated distillation of love and connection through the shifting phases of one couple's evolving romance. Hopeful, bittersweet, and tinged with sobering reality, the individual movie's feature effortless direction and performances, while simultaneously building upon one another to create a larger examination of cinematic time. Modest but authentic, the video and audio both offer a respectful experience. Giving the trilogy the special treatment it deserves, Criterion has included an exceptional assortment of informative supplements. Collecting some of the best romantic dramas in contemporary cinema, this set is a genuine must own.