Before Midnight Isn’t About Us, but It Sure Feels That Way

Why the story of Céline and Jesse is our story, too.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Before Midnight.

My girlfriend and I did not meet on a train approaching Vienna. We met in a place that might be considered the opposite of that: a high school in suburban Boston. It was French class, so perhaps that closes the gap somewhat—though technically, I suppose, it was the school library, where M came up to me during a study period and asked about the definition of one of our vocabulary words (carafe, for the record). That was, as you may have guessed, a pretext for starting a conversation—not entirely unlike the move made by Jesse (Ethan Hawke) when he asks Céline (Julie Delpy) what an older couple on the train a few rows away is arguing about at the beginning of Before Sunrise, the first of Richard Linklater’s three films following Jesse and Céline’s relationship in nine-year intervals. Unlike Céline and Jesse, M and I did not then walk outside and spend the next 24 hours wandering romantically around a beautiful European capital.

But you get the point: Superficially, our experience over the past 18 years—M asked that carafe question in 1995, a few months after she saw Before Sunrise in theaters—does not much resemble the story of Céline and Jesse, who spend that one day and night in Vienna, then part with foolishly romantic plans to meet in the same place six months later, with no contact in between. (As we learn in the 2004 follow-up, Before Sunset, those plans are dashed by the death of Céline’s grandmother.) Still, the movies feel deeply personal to both of us, and I know we’re not alone in that feeling. We saw the second together in the theater, and when this third film, Before Midnight, was announced, it was ironclad that we would not watch it separately—that would have amounted to a kind of betrayal. These movies are now experiences that we need to have with each other. Though the films’ direct connections to our lives are minimal, the movies capture moments that are, I suspect, basic to almost any long-lived love affair, no matter when or where you meet.

It begins, of course, with that meeting on the train in Before Sunrise—which is, it must be said, the easiest of the three films to dismiss. It often feels indulgent of its pretentious 23-year-olds, in love with their love. Linklater stacks the deck in the couple’s favor: After the fortuitous meeting on the train, they get perfect weather (and great lighting) in a gorgeous city, where a vagabond poet by the river writes them verses for a few schillings. (In the second movie, Céline suggests maybe they’re “only good at brief encounters, walking around in European cities in a warm climate.”) But the first flush of infatuation can feel as perfect as that. And the isolation of the two soon-to-be lovers—on vacation in a foreign city with no plans and no friends or family around—allows for their intense, selfish focus on each other. “People always talk about how love is this totally unselfish, giving thing, but if you think about it, there’s nothing more selfish,” young Jesse says, not entirely off the mark. “It’s like our time together is just ours,” Céline says, at a different moment. We do sometimes make connections that exclude the world—for a while.

Jesse and Céline want to sustain the apparent purity of that connection, and so they disavow letters and phone calls and insist they will simply meet again six months later. The uncertainty of that second meeting makes for a clever cinematic ending. Do you think they met up again or not? And what does that say about you? Jesse stages this debate in a Paris bookstore at the beginning of Before Sunset, having written a novel based closely on that night with Céline. But that second movie, set nine years after the reunion failed to materialize, makes it clear just how willfully naïve and even self-aggrandizing that decision not to write or call really was. It required the pair to think that they were somehow better than the boring world, that they could and should avoid the disappointments of everyday routine. So they come to almost resent each other and that night they spent together. The conversations in Before Sunset, rather than drawing them closer, reveal scars that nearly scare them apart. “Oh, God, why weren’t you there, in Vienna?” Jesse asks at one point. “Memories are wonderful things if you don’t have to deal with the past,” Céline says later on.

By the time Before Sunset came out in 2004, M and I had spent most of the previous eight years apart. That first bloom of infatuation in high school hadn’t led to anything; she started dating someone else, I brooded for a while, then went to college. We reconnected after I graduated—but then I went off to grad school in a different country. It took me another couple of years to realize that I should find my way back to her and we should give things a try. When we saw Before Sunset, we had just moved in together. Those years apart—and, more superficially, the fact that Jesse had become a writer while Céline, like M, did something more public-spirited—made us identify strongly with Before Sunset when we saw it together. I suspect, too, that flashing back in our minds to the previous film made us remember when we first met. There’s a lot of nostalgia in that, obviously. But the weight of the past can feel good sometimes.

The sublime ending to Before Sunset—Céline doing her Nina Simone impression, telling Jesse he’s “going to miss that plane”—provided another did-they-or-didn’t-they cliffhanger. And once again the follow-up suggests that that’s not the most interesting question. This time they did, and of course what happened next was real life: They worked, had kids, started to get on each others’ nerves. The best thing about Before Midnight may be its ordinariness. Yes, it begins on the Peloponnesian coast, in an almost impossibly idyllic setting. But Jesse and Céline are on a family vacation this time; there are no unlikely encounters. There are, at last, other people around—children, friends. The second half takes place entirely in a hotel room that could be anywhere. Finally, they are stuck with themselves.

This time, watching the movie with M felt like looking into the future, given the professional and familial entanglements Jesse and Céline have accumulated. There were shades of the present, too: During a long argument in that hotel room, Jesse tells Céline that she’s “the mayor of Crazytown,” an office that M has also held from time to time; meanwhile, his passive-aggressive way of not really confronting problems feels fairly familiar to M. But even more than the first two films, Before Midnight is about the past. Jesse appears to save himself by spinning a yarn for Céline about her future self coming back in a time machine and explaining why she’d be foolish to give up on them now. What really saves him is his own former self. I’m still that guy you met on the train approaching Vienna, he tells her, after she has said she might not love him anymore. I’m still that guy.