I first met Jesse and Celine nearly a decade ago. When I lived in Portland, OR and served as an intern in my church, I lived in a small apartment in a carriage house behind a large mansion converted into apartments. I used to walk up Hawthorne Boulevard to a local video store (it's since closed down), where I would peruse the aisles, searching for the next film to view. I had heard of Richard Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise from online film conversations and recommendations. I noticed the DVD cover on the shelf, looking worn and dated. I took it home and watched the story of Jesse and Celine unfold, two complete strangers becoming more intertwined as they wandered and conversed along the streets of Vienna for one night.
And that was all.
I was captivated. Enamored, really. Something as simple as watching two people have a conversation was absolutely fascinating to me. I took the rental back to the store and picked up Before Sunset, the second Jesse-and-Celine encounter. This second conversation occurred nine years later and for only a about 90 minutes as they walked the streets of Paris, playing out in real-time as the two potential lovers wrestled with the "what if?" question of their lost-and-found connection. Before Sunset proved to be even more enthralling, with a bit more maturity and depth, moving beyond the young love of the 23-year-olds in Before Sunrise into the complexities of one's early-30s and the post-9/11 era.
Nine years spanned the first two conversations. Then, nine years later, a third conversation. The characters are nine years older, nine years of experiences and wisdom and struggles, revealed in the glimpse of a single day in the now 41-year-olds. I will make this claim: the romance between Jesse and Celine has created one of the best--if not the best--of all filmic trilogies, with three consistently well-crafted, affecting, and thoughtful films. Keeping to the simple "walk and talk" formula, Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have created some of the most authentic, nuanced, and compelling characters on screen.
If Before Sunrise was about exploring the notions of romance and sex, and Before Sunset addressed humanity's deeper question about love and destiny, then Before Midnight is the trilogy's meditation on marriage and commitment. Jesse and Celine offer a myriad of views on the concept of marriage--much of it cynical and jaded, though honest and not without merit. Even when I disagreed strongly with their beliefs or comments, I would find myself nodding in understanding and empathy, though not in agreement. As they wander through the countryside and pathways of the coast of Greece--a beautiful setting for any conversation on romance--their honesty and openness is both intriguing and disconcerting. It's like we've been invited to walk alongside a couple as they pour out their hearts, no holding back, no restraints or social barriers. It can be painful or awkward or even ugly to hear, but it is always honest. Each of these three conversations ends with an open ending; we're unsure where Jesse and Celine will go from here, how their romantic journey will end. I suppose we'll have to wait nine more years and see how these 50-year-olds are doing.
I viewed Before Midnight twice. The first time, I left feeling disappointed and pained. The Jesse and Celine of my youth spent much of the last third of the film in heated debate, tearing each other down with their words, painful because of their raw verbal brutality. I stepped out of the theatre as an emotional mess, wondering if there was any hope for love in this world. Then I introduced Before Sunrise and Before Sunset to my wife, culminating in viewing Before Midnight on the eve of our seventh wedding anniversary. What followed was one of the best conversations I've ever had with my wife on the subject of marriage, parenthood, and love. We addressed many of our own hopes and fears, comparing our own romantic story with Jesse and Celine. We, too, struggle with desires, questions, worries, anxieties, and commitments. We, too, love to walk and talk. The difference between our romance story and Jesse and Celine: we've invited God to be an active participant in the conversation. It's not that He is absent in the romantic stories of the Jesses and Celines of the world. His grace is certainly present, for God is love, and all love finds its roots and origins in the Divine. Yet true love is certainly far richer when His grace is recognized, embraced, pursued, and shared between two people.
A note of caution: While Before Sunrise and Before Sunset certainly had some candid and coarse language about sexuality, there was no explicit sexual scenes or nudity. This is not the case with Before Midnight, and viewers should be forewarned of an extended scene in the last act in which Celine is topless. If you proceed, view with discernment and caution.