Richard Linklater’s celebrated ‘Before Trilogy’ is renowned for its decades-long ‘will they, won’t they’ romance between Jesse and Celine. But it’s also a love story that hinges on what occurred in Austria’s heart one Christmastime…
IT HAPPENED – OR DIDN’T – ONE ADVENT NIGHT
American, Jesse (a fresh-faced Ethan Hawke) and the French Celine (similarly youthful Julie Delpy) having spent last night wandering the streets of Vienna together are now going their separate ways. Beside Celine’s train to Paris stands a couple who were yesterday complete strangers but this morning know this cannot be the last of it. They hug, clinging on to each other, not wanting to let the other go. They decide to meet in six months time.
‘It’s going to be freezing,’ notes Celine, the pragmatist.
‘OK. It doesn’t have to be here. We can go somewhere else,’ suggests Jesse.
‘Six months from now? Or last night?’
‘Shit,’ replies Jesse, who doesn’t seem to have yet thought of that: ‘Last night. Six months from last night. Which is, er, June 16th. Track 9, six months from now. Six o’clock at night.’
‘December,’ echoes Jesse. ‘Now look, it’s a train ride for you but I’ve got to fly over here and shit like that, all right.’
Celine laughs, her yes full of brightness and love. ‘But I’m going to be here,’ continues Jesse. ‘Me too,’ replies the young woman, ‘And we’re not going to call or write, or..’
‘No. it’s depressing,’ counters Jesse, shrugging his shoulders, and revealing by his words that he believes in the magic of romance as much as anyone.
They say their goodbyes, she with an ‘Au Revoir,’ he with a ‘Later’. They part.
Neither Jesse nor Celine has mentioned Christmas, though anyone thinking of December 16th would surely consider that. It is a heck of a time to travel, for one thing, with family members traversing the world whether at local or international level to be with their loved ones for the festival. And Vienna at Christmastime is both freezing as Celine rightly points out but also a city where the festival figures strongly. There are Christmas markets, gluwein, and woven straw decorations. The couple’s encounter would surely not end at the railway platform: they would likely retrace their steps among a city of sparkle and celebration.
Before Sunrise (1995), the first in the trilogy (but what I for one hope will turn out to be a life-long following of these two’s relationship, complete with the same actors) ends with a cliffhanger of a sort. It has been argued that what we have watched is the story of two lives played out (including marriage and death) in the course of a couple’s hours together in Austria’s very beautiful capital city.
Director and co-writer, Richard Linklater (Delpy and Hawke received no screenwriting credit this time) could have left it at that. But audiences – and presumably the trio – were left with the niggling feeling of what happened to this intelligent, lightly humoured pairing? Did they ever get to meet at chilly Track 9 after all?
A question demands to be answered
It took nine more years before we learnt the answer. In Before Sunset (2004), it turns out that one of the characters was just as curious. Author Jesse is launching his new novel based on his earlier encounter with Celine, at the celebrated Parisian bookshop, Shakespeare & Co, and she, curious, turns up to see him.
What starts in half-shy hellos among the shop’s shadowy bookstacks emerges into the afternoon sunshine as a rekindling of their relationship until Jesse must catch his plane home. The pair stop in the street, and Celine tentatively asks: ‘Before we go anywhere, I have to ask you, did you show up in Venice that December?’
Days of mourning and lost romance
What did or did not occur that winter day almost a decade earlier lies at the heart of the hours Jesse and Celine spend wandering the streets of the City of Love together. Celine was unable to make it since she had to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Her December 1994 was one of mourning: ‘I was crying because I was never going to see her again and… never going to see you again.’ Jesse teases her: ‘I flew all the over there, you blew the thing off, and my life’s been a big nose dive since then, but I mean, it’s not a problem.’
Jesse cannot stop teasing Celine yet there is an underlying pain to what he says. His stay in Vienna was one of unfulfilled romantic hope spent walking the streets for a couple of days before he flew home, owing his Dad two thousand bucks for the privilege.
Wondering about life’s ‘what might have beens’
The duo’s Woody Allenesque talk sees them comparing notes but also wondering what might have been: ‘Our lives might have been so much different,’ pleads Jesse. Celine seems the more optimistic and philosophical: ‘Now that we’ve met again, we can change our memory of that December 16th. It no longer has that sad ending of us never seeing each other again. Right?’
Yet Jesse, trapped in a dutiful marriage sees himself damaged by that day. In the back of a car to a flat, he tells Celine: I think that I might have given up on the whole idea of romantic love, that I might have put t to bed the day when you weren’t there…’
Though unspoken, Celine’s no-show must too have sullied Jesse’s memory of their original June 1994 hook-up, leaving him wondering if it had been worth even speaking to the French girl on the train in the first place nine years ago. How many ‘if onlys’ we accumulate through life! For these two, it as if back on December 16th 1994, they missed the chance they ever had of true love.
A loving pairing stretched to breaking point
Except, except…. In 2013’s Before Midnight (15), the audience are able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Jesse and Celine are a partnership at last, and what’s more they have two beautiful young daughters. (Watching Hawke and Delpy grow older together in these roles is just as heartening.)
Yet life isn’t as cut and dried as they, and especially Jesse would like. He also has a thirteen year old American son, Hank from his first unhappy marriage, whom he has just said farewell to at the Greek airport on the island where his second family are enjoying a break. Driving his remaining family back from the airport, the girls asleep in the backseats, it is clear the American father is being torn apart emotionally: ‘..Every summer. Every Christmas. You know.’
For all his lightheartedness, teasing and jokes, there is a more serious side to Jesse that every so often emerges. He recognises he is missing or at least has missed the best years of his son, Hank’s life but his new family are Parisians, and his life is settled in Europe. This split will be the crux of what will cause a rift in his partnership with Celine. Ideally, Jesse would return to America so he could at least see his Chicago-based son more often, but Celine has been offered a new job with the French Government and doesn’t want to throw away such a professional opportunity.
The charm of romance meets the grit of reality
In referring to summer and Christmas, Jesse is referencing the holidays when Hank could have free time to spend with his Dad, where they could share experiences together, and Jesse could more easily support the boy growing up. However, summer holidays and Christmas are also a time, for most of happy memories, and it is much a possibility that Jesse’s nostalgia for his own childhood – and those times of the year that we so tend to over romanticise – is colouring what he hopes for in his relationship with his son.
Later, in a hotel room Jesse and Celine will both face a storm of an argument that threatens to rip their love to shreds. For all the romance and quips, Before Midnight turns out to be a very honest and adult examination of relationship and what makes and keeps long term couplings alive or alternatively destroys them. It will be turning up in a lot of critics’ Best Films of 2013 this Christmas.