My first encounter with Jesse and Celine occurred in the late nineties in the film "Before Sunrise," one of the many films I discovered during my tenure at Blockbuster. I had been enamored of the Director Richard Linklater's film "Dazed and Confused" and sought out other films by him, which led me to this one. But something about this one clicked, creating a love affair with these two characters that picked up again nine years later with "Before Sunset" and then another nine years later in "Before Midnight." Why such an affinity for a movie couple, you ask? Well, let me start at the beginning...
It's 1995 and Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke, is traveling by train to Vienna to catch a plane to go home. He strikes up a conversation with a woman roughly his same age, Celine, played by Julie Delpy. They seem to click a bit and he asks her to join him in the lounge car for a bite to eat and she agrees. They talk some more and really seem to be hitting it off. However, their conversation seems to come to an early end as the train arrives in Vienna. They part ways, but Jesse has second thoughts and returns to the lounge car and proposes a crazy thought to Celine. She should get off the train with him in Vienna and spend the night with him wandering the city before his flight in the morning (he doesn't have enough money for a hotel).
Over the course of the night, Jesse and Celine wander around Vienna, talking about various topics and over the course of the night fall in love with each other. The entire movie is these entire two characters talking and the thing is, I started to fall for both of them. I wanted to hang out with them, have conversations with them. These are two young, smart, educated adults whose view of the world was not too different from mine. I found myself really enjoying these two and their time together exploring the city. It's an understated, realistic and honest approach to a romantic film and it works well.
The film ends on an ambiguous note as Jesse and Celine pledge to meet again in six months back in Vienna, agreeing not to exchange phone numbers or anything and wait until they are reunited. Celine departs on the next train and Jesse departs for the airport, leaving the ending open to the viewer to decide if they reunite or not.
Nine years later, I found myself greeted with the most unlikely of all sequels, "Before Sunset." Not at all unwelcome, in fact I found the prospect of reuniting with Jesse and Celine to be too good to be true and quite exciting.
The film picks up in Paris, nine years later. Celine shows up at a book signing Jesse is having in a Paris bookstore. He has a plane to catch that he had to leave and meet in an hour and a half. They decide to wander around Paris and catch up until he has to leave for the airport. They pick up where they left off, but there seems to be a cloud of regret hanging over the reunion. Turns out they never reunited in Vienna. Jesse showed, but Celine didn't because her Grandma died during the time they were supposed to reunite and couldn't come.
Both moved on with their lives. Jesse got married and has a kid. He also wrote a book about Celine and their one night together, and admits he did it as an attempt to find her. As the evening wears on, Jesse admits his marriage isn't working out and talks about how he never stopped looking for her. This film has a looming urgency to it as Jesse keeps putting off leaving for the airport, not wanting to let Celine go twice.
This is a rare sequel that is an equal and perhaps even superior to the original as these two characters make peace with decisions they made when they were younger and try to determine what their future might be for one another. The film ends on a slightly less ambiguous note as the two end up at Celine's apartment. Celine says to Jesse, "Baby, you are going to miss that plane."
Jesse, seated on the couch, smiles and replies, "I know..."
"Before Sunset" is perhaps an even richer film simply because these two characters are older and oh so much wiser, wishing they hadn't been so foolish when they were younger and take greater lengths to remain in touch. It's this feeling of regret that slowly seeps into their limited time together that gives everything a little more meaning, a little more hope that these two will learn from their mistakes and not part this time around. Something the film playfully follows through on.
If I thought "Before Sunset" was unlikely, this one came as a complete surprise to me. Once again, a happy surprise, but wholly unexpected. We catch up with Jesse and Celine while on vacation in Greece. They are now married with twins. The film opens with Jesse seeing his son, Hank, off at the airport to return home to his mother in the U.S. This leaves Jesse with a feeling he should be around more for his son and that he's missing important moments in his son's life.
Celine tries to be supportive but is not keen on the idea of moving to the U.S, in part because she has just been offered an important job with the French government. She suggests trying to get custody of Hank so he can move to Paris and live with them. Jesse is hesitant to do this, not wanting to take his son away from his life in the U.S.
Jesse and Celine return to the house they are staying at with friends. Jesse was invited to stay as he was a guest lecturer at the local university, something else that is starting to bug Celine who is at a career crossroads while her husband has found success as a writer. Their friends arranged a date night for the two of them at a local hotel while they babysit their kids. As the two set off after dinner to walk to the hotel, they begin another of their epic conversations and it starts to become increasingly clear that not all is right with these two.
While the first two was about the beginning of a relationship at two different stages in their lives, this one is very much about maintaining it and while it's not always pretty it feels so unbelievably authentic, in no small part due to the performances of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. As things continue to escalate between the two, culminating in a really big fight, it's heart wrenching because these two characters over the course of three films have become so genuinely real and three dimensional to the fans of these films. You want them to stay together because despite the things that drive them crazy about one another, they are so good together.
As I reflect on these films, all three unique and special, I remark at how each one has such an authentic feel to them. There are no big moments, so silliness, it all feels like real life between two people and it has a genuineness to it that has left me enchanted through three films. All three seem to end of deliberately ambiguous notes, leaving the viewer to fill in what happens to these two characters that so many have gotten so attached to. As I left the theater after watching "Before Midnight" I felt really bummed that I was going to have to wait another nine years to hopefully see my friends Jesse and Celine again. Because at this point, that's what they feel like to me. That's crazy, right?