I shouldn’t be writing this. I have a script to finish and despite a good day battling with it yesterday I remain significantly behind schedule; plus I am going out for dinner with my friend Kris tomorrow night which means my writing time is further constrained (although for good reason; Kris is always excellent company and despite the fact that we clearly can’t drink as much as we used to do, this never stops us from having a damn good try) and therefore I SHOULD NOT BE WRITING THIS.
But I am. To quote the Sweden-based musician and producer Dr Alban’s hit from 1992: it’s my life. (I’m not sure Dr Alban’s medical credentials stand-up to scrutiny – if you are stung by a wasp or contract a wasting disease whilst throwing scandinavian shapes in the heat of a Stockholm flesh-pit it is probably advisable to call 112 and not wait for the now distinctly middle-aged and seemingly unqualified “Dr” Alban to bound up in a pair of ridiculous shoes and offer you a plaster). I am minded to write a blog entry when I really don’t have the time so to do for one simple reason: I want to wax lyrical, I wish to proselytise, I wish to exhort you to watch the beautiful and brilliant work of Richard Linklater; in particular I want you to scrap all plans for the coming weekend, settle down on the sofa and watch all three of the “Before . . . . ” films on DVD.
I am sure you know all about these films already but if you’ve been reading the Daily Mail for the past fifteen years then let me give you the tiniest amount of context. The three films, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and (finally?) Before Midnight are each set over a single day and feature two characters: Celine, played by Julie Delpy and Jesse played by Ethan Hawke. In the first film the pair meet on a train and decide to spend the night together wandering around Vienna. The subsequent two films explore their relationship at roughly ten year intervals.
I saw the Before Sunrise during my first year of university. The campus film society would weekly screen films in a large physics lecture hall. The seats were terribly uncomfortable although you could take advantage of the “writing shelf” (a term I have invented for want of a better description of the wooden surface on which young physicists would lean and scribble pictures of infinity) for hosting your snacks and drinks. The atmosphere was sterile and unbecoming but it was cheap and very near a bar so you could have a few pints both before an after a film with relative ease. And so it was that one cold evening my friend Sam and I were in search of entertainment and we decided to see this film “Before Sunrise” that neither of us had heard of. This was one of our better decisions. The film was a revelation: two young, attractive and clever people wandering around a beautiful European city just TALKING (alright there is a bit of snogging and sexy fumbling but it amounts to very little) and very little else. This was a humane, funny and utterly convincing portrait of a relationship and one portrayed without pretension or filmic film-flam. I loved every second.
This clip says everything you need to know:
The acting is that scene is sublime. I like to think that I rushed back the next night to the lecture hall and watched the film for a second time. However, I don’t think this can be true as films were only shown once a week but whatever the truth, I do remember telling everyone who would listen (and many that wouldn’t) that it was a masterpiece and they should see it. Hopefully some did.
Ten-ish years later, Linklater directed Delpy and Hawke in the sequel, Before Sunset. This time the two characters meet in Paris and much the same thing happens as before, i.e. they walk around the city and talk. But the conversation is different this time; it is pricklier, older, each of the characters being a little more bruised and battered by experience than in the early flush of adulthood explored in the first film. Linklater’s direction is once again flawless, much of it composed of long takes in which he maintains a two-shot from the front or behind and lets the characters just talk. It is beautifully simple. Beautifully simple and very hard to do as Chris our DOP on High Tide will attest – although to be fair to Chris the pavements of Paris are, I’m sure, rather easier to navigate with a Stedicam rig than the paths of Rhosilli or Port Eynon.
Before Sunset also has one the very best endings of any film ever. That’s right, EVER. And if you don’t believe me then ask Professor Rob Stone PhD and he’ll back me up. And he knows a LOT about film. And has met Richard Linklater. So there.
Earlier this year, Linklater released the third part of the now-trilogy Before Midnight. I won’t say too much in case you want to do the sensible thing and watch all three in sequence, suffice to say that Jesse and Celine are now another decade older and their conversations (this time in Greece) reflect another ten years worth of living with all its concomitant scars, ticks and ingrained insecurities. And it is another masterpiece. Linklater’s direction reaches another level altogether, not least in the fifteen minute shot that takes place near the beginning of the film. Fifteen minutes, one static camera mounted on the bonnet of a car, no cuts, no edits and our two characters talking. If this sounds hateful and pretentious then let me assure you that it is precisely the opposite; if it sounds dull then you should probably look elsewhere for your filmic kicks, and probably read a different blog.
It is not hard for me to understand why these three films have so consistently moved me over the years. It isn’t simply because I quite fancy both Delpy and Hawke (come on, they are LOVELY) but also, I am sure, because I saw each at roughy the same age as the characters portrayed and in each film and they really could have been, at times, talking about my life (to return to “Dr” Alban territory). This may sound trite but for all the wonder of far-off fantasy, of dragons and spaceships, of car chases and exotic cities lit up against the night sky like a billion fireflies, the stories that pitch themselves closet to your own heart are often the most profound. They are the ones that remain when others have faded. They are the films that become yours.
Great writing, superb acting, brilliant direction, for Jimmy and me the “Before” trilogy is everything to which we aspire as filmmakers. And we are very grateful they exist.
Right, I must get on. I really must.