Romantic love is poignant because it is an infinite feeling that exists in a finite frame. And Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy is the most romantic and profound of love stories because it imbues love with the weight of time. In these three films, the temporal limits constantly imposed on love make every moment urgent, from the courtship of dating to the maturity of a long and meaningful relationship. Before Sunrise, the most yearning and hopeful of the films, flies in the face of other youthful love stories for the thematic prominence it gives to the passage of time. Most twentysomethings think they’ll live forever, but the one-night stroll through Vienna of young Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is marked by both the filmmaker’s and the characters’ constant awareness that their time, both here and on earth, is limited.
It’s remarkable that even back in 1995 Linklater was making a film about the effects of time, since this was before he ever conceived of returning to these characters twice over the next eighteen years to witness the changes wrought on their faces and souls. There is a recurring sense of anticipatory mourning about Before Sunrise. One can feel it in Celine and Jesse’s first conversation after meeting on a train rocketing from Budapest to Vienna: he talks about his childhood vision of his dead great-grandmother through a sun-sparkled spray of water from a garden hose; she mentions her crippling fear of flying (“I think I’m afraid of death twenty-four hours a day”). One can feel it in the cemetery scene, when Celine shows Jesse the thirteen-year-old girl’s gravestone she recalled from a childhood visit to Vienna. One can feel it during their dinner, when Jesse tells the story of his friend watching his child being born and being unable to shake the fact that this baby would one day die.
There’s another scene in the film, only one minute long, that haunts me for how it relates that we are all the more beautiful for being ephemeral creatures. Jesse has just mildly put off Celine with his cynical, unromantic response to the prognostications of a street fortune-teller; by this point, evening has fallen, and more of a hush has come over the city. The two of them are winding down a street when she is stopped by the sight of small posters advertising an exhibition of drawings by postimpressionist master Georges Seurat at the city’s Kunst Haus Wien museum. She is instantly overtaken by the scratchy beauty of Seurat’s La voie ferrée (1881–82), which she says she once saw in a museum and stared at “for what must have been forty-five minutes.” The work, whose title translates to “Railway Tracks,” might remind us of the opening of the film—a close-up of train tracks rushing past—and of how the potential lovers first met. Yet this desolate landscape evokes a neglected past rather than a hopeful future. As Celine continues to scan the other images advertising the show, they become increasingly ghostly, from La nourrice (1882–83), with its faceless, scarfed female form, to Anaïs Faivre Haumonté sur son lit de mort (1887), of a woman on her deathbed, her face and figure less discernible to the eye than the crucifix and candles behind her. “I love the way the people seem to be dissolving into the background,” Celine says, nearly whispering, and fans of the series may recall the emotional moment in Before Sunset when Celine hugs a fragile Jesse to see “if you stay together or if you dissolve into molecules.”
Yet Celine’s most crucial response to Seurat here is, “His human figures are always so transitory.” When she first sees the posters, she acknowledges her own transitory nature, noting that they’ll miss the show, which doesn’t start until the following week, long after Vienna is but a memory for them. This exhibition never really took place at this time at the Kunst Haus Wien; it was an invention of Linklater’s, and it accomplishes so much, so effortlessly. It employs the mysterious beauty of Seurat to implicitly explicate the film’s underlying themes; it places the film itself on an artistic continuum; and it allows us to further fall for Celine right along with Jesse. As Celine looks at the posters, Jesse looks at Celine. We’re falling in love with her passion, both seeing her and seeing through her eyes.
This fleeting moment—between Celine and Jesse, between Celine and art, between the viewer and the couple—is just one of many reasons I revisit this film and its sequel, Before Sunset, every Valentine’s Day with my husband. (The more recent Before Midnight is gradually making its way into the rotation.) Each passing year, we grow older, while they stay the same age, looking more impossibly young. It’s become essential to us. We return to these films because Jesse and Celine remind us of the early days of our love, like our memories are theirs and vice versa. We return because Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke make us want to reexperience the power of human connection, and to believe that it can triumph over time.
Michael Koresky is editorial director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York; cofounder and editor of the online film magazine Reverse Shot; and a frequent contributor to Film Comment and the Criterion Collection. He is the author of Terence Davies (University of Illinois Press, 2014).