Many people justifiably went ballistic last fall over the opening shot of Gravity, a 17 minute tour de force by Alfonse Cuaron, Sandra Bullock and company. It’s one humdinger of a shot and will be regarded as one of cinema’s great triumphs for years to come. Gravity’s opening shot, however, has nothing on the dizzying, electrifying long takes rampant in Richard Linklater’s brilliant romantic trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight.
Take for example ‘the car scene’ near the start of the third film, Before Midnight. Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) drive through the countryside of Greece having a conversation that will resonate throughout the film. This, too, is a very long take, 15 minutes, but without the aid of special effects or 3D to cover any breaks or mistakes or to keep the audience enlivened. There’s no need. What we instead have are two actors and a director working at the peak of their powers creating a single take as breathtaking as anything in Gravity.
Please understand, I don’t mean to disparage Gravity, a mind boggling film that, like Life of Pi before it, will change filmmaking as we know it. But this amazing ‘Before Trilogy’, hailed by A. O. Scott of the NY Times as “the great romantic epic of a generation’, dazzles the heart and mind in a completely different way.
If you have not seen the films, each written by Linklater, Deply and Hawke, an intro: Eighteen years ago came the wonderful and surprising Before Sunrise wherein two strangers, Celine and Jesse, meet on a morning train to Vienna and end up spending 24 hours together. We watch as they walk around Vienna, see the city, have coffee and talk. They also fall very much in love. The movie was famous for its long takes of the two characters simply walking and talking (that’s pretty much the entire movie) and also for taking place in a 24 hour time frame. Before Sunrise ends as the sun comes up, Celine headed to Paris, Jesse to the US. They must decide if or how they will continue their relationship. We see their decision as Celine gets on a train but we are left in the dark as to what then becomes of the two.
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Sunrise seemed hard to top but nine years later the trio reunited to make Before Sunset, an even richer, more heartfelt film. We meet back up with Celine and Jesse, in the story also nine years older, to discover what exactly happened in the interim. “Did they end up together? If so, what happened?” No spoilers here except to say Before Sunset is one of the most beautifully melancholy and romantic films I’ve ever seen. It’s breathtaking. While containing the same lengthy walking and talking takes of the previous film, Before Sunset one ups Sunrise by taking place virtually real time in less than two hours with the ticking clock of Jesse’s plane departure always in the background. It also ends with another question as to what exactly might happen.
Jump nine years again and in Before Midnight, the best of the trilogy and also one of the best movies of the last ten years, we once again meet Celine and Jesse to again find out what has happened and also examine who they have become eighteen years after their initial meeting.
What in lesser hands would have been a novel acting exercise or a cute attempt at following the lives of both characters and actors is anything but. The writing in these films is so sharp and insightful, and the chemistry between Delpy and Hawke so palpable and electric, that even the 15 minute single take of the two talking as they drive in a car is as engrossing as anything I’ve seen in a movie. Celine and Jesse are smart, complex and relatable characters that are also very enjoyable to be around. We come to care deeply for each of the characters as we also become very invested in their relationship and what will become of it. I’m always preaching to my film classes that the way to engage an audience is to keep the audience ‘leaning forward’, the audience wanting to know what is going to happen. For the audience to lean forward, the audience must care about the characters on screen. By the time the final third of Before Midnight began and one of the great movie fights ever filmed begins, I could hardly breathe and was nauseous with worry about what might happen to these two wonderful characters. Talk about leaning forward!
I recently watched all three films in a row and was once again reminded of the wonder of the work involved. Delpy is extraordinary. She plays an intense, emotional and uninhibited woman with no fear of seeming irrational or dislikable. I could listen to her Celine rant about anything for hours, so charismatic and enjoyable are Delpy and the character. As for Hawke, these movies comprise by far his best work. I’ll admit I was not much of a fan until I saw these films, Before Sunset in particular, where Jesse’s longing and love for Celine, expressed mostly through Hawke’s eyes, is so strong and full of exquisite pain Hawke breaks your heart every time the camera hits him looking longingly at Delpy.
As for Linklater… I’ve been in love with his work ever since Dazed and Confused blew me away, not only because it seemed he was making a virtual documentary of my hometown in the 70’s, but also because it was such an enjoyable damn fine film. Linklater has made terrific film after terrific film, sometimes in the studio system but more often in the independent world where he can create such original and invigorating films as Waking Life and Bernie. Along with David O. Russell, I find Linklater the best filmmaker alive today. He creates intelligent, wonderful films that challenge in the best of all possible ways without being obtuse or pretentious. Word is he is also one hell of a good guy.
If you haven’t seen the ‘Before Trilogy’ I encourage you to give these movies a try. For some, certainly, they will be different: it’s mostly two people walking and talking. But if you allow yourself to succumb to the performances and writing, and the lovely rhythms of the films, each very different than the other, you might find yourself agreeing Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight comprise some of the best American filmmaking of the last 30 years, with also some of the best and most enjoyable acting to be found. Dive into all three, watch the filmmaker and the actors grow along with the characters and, like Celine and Jesse, you yourself might also fall in love.