Sunrise, Sunset, or Midnight: Debating the Best Film in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy

Which chapter captures Jesse and Celine's finest moment?

Before Trilogy Vs.
Before Trilogy (Criterion Collection)

Twenty-five years ago this week, Richard Linklater first introduced us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in 1994’s Before Sunrise. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time — even those involved — the Sundance charmer was the first of a trilogy of films that now includes 2004’s Before Sunset and 2012’s Before Midnight.

Over the years, the series has been praised by critics and beloved by fans for capturing one of cinema’s most authentic portrayals of love with each entry relishing the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes with it. Today, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, we’re revisiting our great debate from 2015 on which chapter told the best story.

So, let’s take a walk…

Before Trilogy Vs.

Before Trilogy (Criterion Collection)

Dominick Mayer (DM): For a movie as navel-gazing and utterly ’90s in certain respects as Before Sunrise is, it’s the fount from which one of Linklater’s foremost accomplishments sprung. And it’s a perfect follow-up to his previous film to boot. Where Dazed and Confused perfectly captures the listlessness of high school summers, all intoxication and wandering conversation and just wandering in general, Before Sunrise continues that thought but adds to it the pangs of onset adulthood. Before Sunrise perhaps works best when viewed through that lens, because even as someone who adores it, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s the easiest of the three films to side-eye just a little.

After all, it’s really, really enamored with what college kids have to say about life. But, as the Before films go on to insist with increasing fervor, the conversations don’t necessarily matter as much as the way they’re delivered and the subtle cues between Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine. For them, wandering the streets and canals of Vienna is just something to do while in transit to elsewhere, and they’re killing time with an attractive stranger as best they can in the interim. They’re clearly compatible but in that way that you are specifically in the earlier days of college, when meeting people and wandering through social modes is an integral part of your day-to-day life, when you’re enamored with just getting to know somebody that isn’t like anybody you’ve met before. In those scenarios, whether the other person even makes for particularly great company is beside the point.

Now, I know you two may well end up preferring the grounded realism of later installments to the dreamy, European whimsy of the first, but Sunrise is a great, great film concerned with watching people fall in love, from the first meet cute onward. It’s measured and observed in a way films like this in its own time, and even now, really aren’t.

Blake Goble (BG): It’s just downright silly to try and pick a favorite time to watch Delpy and Hawke before certain times of day. It’s always a good time to watch this couple evolve, grow in and out of love, and behave like real people.

And yet I have a favorite.

I love Before Sunrise’s emotional maturity and sweetness, and I admire Before Midnight’s total commitment and bravery in showing marriage as a sometimes imperfect situation. But Before Sunset’s simplicity, expedient storytelling, and just all around cool confidence and honesty in the face of love is the most affecting and impressive chapter. It has the hardest job of all three by being an extended continuation, and it doesn’t try to put an official stamp on this couple so much as let them breathe and show their development as people. Only then does Sunset suggest that this couple is going to truly wind up with each other. It openly admits that the prior 1995 chapter was not a perfect and happy ending, but now’s the time for reconciliation, closure, long-lost resentments to come into the fold. Only then can true — if not flawed, but inevitable – love emerge.

It’s amazing, not just in concept, but in how honest this film allows its leads to be. They say things, brutally openly emotional things that you would never ever hear in a summer romance movie. (Nicholas Sparks adaptations have all but ruined love in the movies.) And Hawke and Delpy come into themselves as people of genuine emotion and interest. Add all that to the fact that Before Sunset has the unceremonious position as the middle film, and in that regard, it’s the strongest and most rewarding of Linklater’s three films. Jeez, it’s so confident and relaxed and natural that there’s an 11-minute take, and the trio shot it in 15 days.

If we’re to measure the success of these three films by how effectively Linklater depicts his Jesse and Celine, how invested we become in them, Sunset is so stripped of extraneous plot, and so focused on the duo, that we feel like we almost know them intimately. If all you need to tell a story is two people and a place to talk, then, well, Before Sunset is an authoritative work. Way more accomplished and in-depth than Before Sunrise.

Although, that argument could be thrown out the window by the unflinching and even painful privacy we’re exposed to in Before Midnight.

Justin Gerber (JG): Choosing the best Before film is nearly impossible, and truthfully my answer changes on a conversation-by-conversation basis. But as I write this response a little after midnight, my answer is the entry that takes place just before midnight. Do you guys get it? My answer is Before Midnight!

Blake, to piggyback off your last comment, in our 2013 outing with Jesse and Celine, we bear witness to the reality that no one has a perfect ending. All of those couples we see in romantic movies, holding hands as they walk down the street before the credits roll? They’re going to fight eventually. They’re going to exchange unpleasantries. Some of them are going to make it, and some of them are not. Before Midnight could have presented another 90 minutes of Jesse and Celine experiencing a carefree evening out as a married couple, and you know what? It probably would have worked.

I trust Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy completely at this point. But in ’95, didn’t we have to wait nine years to see if they would end up meeting up when they said they would? Weren’t we forced to wait another nine years to see if Jesse was going to make that plane in Sunset? With that knowledge, why would we have ever thought Linklater and his cohorts would make it so easy for us with Midnight?

Jesse and Celine have two daughters now, and their love for them is never in doubt. Here’s the thing though: despite that awful fight that takes place in the hotel room during Midnight’s climax, I don’t doubt that Jesse and Celine still love each other. We’ve just caught them at a really bad time this go ‘round, and I’m fine with that. As a viewer, I appreciate getting a look at something I would otherwise steer clear of in my real life. It’s part of the escape, whether it’s romantic or hard to look it. Blake, the question I have for you is this: Is “love” enough for one of the greatest on-screen couples?

BG: Just about. And you’re absolutely right. It’s the uncommon characteristics of this relationship, this romantic trilogy, that make it all the more believable that they’re together for the long haul. It’s moving and comforting in how we see this couple over the course of 18 years, because love this strong always seems to find a way. I appreciate how you point out cinematic love. Yes, movies tend to simplify and make rapturous what people generally struggle with.

I won’t accuse populist romances of mismanaging people’s expectations of love and sex, but rather state that the Before trilogy is a terrific primer for relationships in a way. Idyllic locations aside, they more or less want to present people in love over a long time, not lovers in heat. There’s never any check-ins with couples in mainstream romances, just the blind faith in “Happily Ever After” mentalities.

What makes Jesse and Celine’s love so strong is the gift of attention. They can’t stop caring about each other; you see it in the long term. It’s possibly one of the most loving things you can want to give another human being, and Jesse and Celine try their very best.

Also, and I can’t stress this enough, these movies are insanely romantic. And I’m not talking about sickly grand gestures in the style of Richard Curtis (if only someone held a lighter up to Andrew Lincoln’s obnoxious Dylan cards in Love Actually) but romantic in seeing what makes two people truly connect. How they speak and turn each other on intellectually. They just talk. A lot. And they care. They discuss the Germans occupying Paris, what art means to them, how cool Nina Simone is, and just what it means that they gave their lives to each other. That is way sexier than playing, like, “M’ apparì tutt’ amora” with a ukulele outside someone’s window.

JG: I agree with you regarding the unique romance that plays out between the two of them. Is there a more romantic scene in Midnight than when the two of them simply sit to watch the sunset? In that moment, two people who have loved each other for nearly two decades find a brief period in their now-busy lives to share something. The sun rises and sets every day (demerits for obvious information), but in life’s hustle and bustle we rarely see this happen when we’re on our own, let alone with someone else.

And as for their conversations, couldn’t you just follow these two forever? It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re about to fight in a hotel room or the backseat of a car. They could be 25 or 45. They could wax nostalgic or pontificate on possible futures. As uncomfortable as it is to watch their meltdown near Midnight’s conclusion, it’s never not fascinating. It’s like watching two friends fight in public; only in this instance the couple thinks they’re alone in the privacy of their rented room.

DM: First of all, Blake, I can’t dispute you on that part of Love Actually. Rick Grimes very much covets his neighbor’s wife, and it’s not cool. But I digress. I think the reason I appreciate Sunrise so much to this day is precisely because of what you’ve just stated, Justin.

You can listen to them talk forever, and the first film sets the tone for that, because it takes place during a time when the two of them have little more to do (or, and this is key, want little more to do) than to simply talk to one another. It’s telling that at one point Celine wonders aloud, “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?” For both Jesse and Celine, there’s nothing more passionate or sensual in the world than conversation (corny, I realize), and it’s in the sounds of one another talking that each is so beguiled by the other. In the same way that the audience is pulled into their lives through that perspective, it’s how they were pulled toward each other.

There’s another line that I find interesting, especially as it relates to Midnight, when Jesse says that “Sometimes I dream about being a good father and a good husband. And sometimes it feels really close. But then other times it seems silly, like it would ruin my whole life.” That tension manifests itself much later in the series, but the anxiety is already there. For two people as serious-minded as them, who as the first film evidences were pretty serious-minded even in their more carefree years, these are practical concerns.

But there’s something really touching, and also a little bit aching, about seeing them wonder about these things when we have at least flashes of how they’ll play out in the long run. Jesse will have his family without his anxieties ever being assuaged; in fact, a lot of them will end up being very real concerns. But Sunrise is a snapshot in time for two people, when those were just anxieties and no more, when there was the freedom to wonder what the hell you’re doing and whether you want to keep doing it. The non-permanence of it all is as seductive as it is kind of wistful.

JG: “I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing!” If the romance of the Before films was the driving force of the series, Jesse’s words in Before Midnight turn the series towards a new direction. Fights are also part of the series, but it’s in this moment where we start to wonder whether or not this whole relationship thing is going to work out. Maybe we’ll see in 2022 when Before Twilight inevitably hits theaters. Will Jesse and Celine be at their kids’ wedding? Will they be together? Will one of them be dead? I don’t know about the two of you, but I look forward to that movie as much as I do the new Star Wars. And I’m a nerd!

Any final thoughts from you two about one of the greatest film trilogies of all time?

BG: Honestly, I just find it funny that we all came here trying to pick favorites, and that may have been a foolish proposition. We can barely disagree or plant flags, because the trilogy acts as a whole. This is a lasting relationship, in every sense. And for the love of Celine and Jesse I can’t wait to snag the complete trilogy on Criterion Blu-ray later this year. Pending a Barnes & Noble sale, of course. I’m even open to a Before Dusk sequel in 2022, because I have faith not just in the creative team behind these films but in the people they’re about. I’ve grown to care for this couple over the course of 20 years. Linklater dug into something really deep with these films, and they’ll endure as a template for modern love on film.

Before Midnight (Sony Pictures Classics)

Before Midnight (Sony Pictures Classics)

DM: In a lot of respects, I think the Before films work best when viewed in the same way as Linklater’s Boyhood, as chronicles of the lapse of time. It’s more gradual in this instance, but it’s like Michael Apted’s 7 Up series; the Before films ask you to grow with two people, who outside of their intelligence and our time with them aren’t remarkable in any sort of spectacular way. We care because we’ve watched them age, and like you, Blake, I want these films to continue as long as Linklater and Delpy and Hawke are able to keep making them. When I heard talk of Midnight, it was cause for a bit of panic. “Has it been nine years already?” But that’s what the films convey best. All you can do is allow age to happen and try your best to make sense of it all later.