If you’ve ever approached a good-looking stranger on a train, or kicked yourself for not doing so, you probably love Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films – “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” – about a pair of travelers who met on a train bound for Vienna in 1995, rekindled their romance in Paris in 2004, and then re-emerge as lovers on holiday in Greece in 2013. I saw “Before Midnight” on Friday, and while I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two films, I still believe that anyone who is passionate about travel has to see these films.
In the first film, Jesse, a jilted young American backpacker played by Ethan Hawke, convinces Celine, a Frenchwoman who is on her way back to Paris, played by Julie Delpy, to get off the train with him in Vienna. The pair fall in love while walking the streets of Vienna, but rather than exchange contact information when they part, they resolve to meet again in six months. (We learn in the next film that that meeting never happened.)
According to Slate, and a host of other publications, Linklater’s inspiration for “Before Sunrise” came from a stay-up-all-night evening he spent with a young woman he met in Philaelphia, who later died in a motorcycle accident after they lost touch. I saw “Before Sunrise” on the day it came out in 1995 and was deeply affected by the film.
I was 22, a couple years younger than Jesse and Celine, and had just graduated from college. I had no car at the time, and to save on bus fare, I took an hour-long walk from my decrepit $275 per month studio on Walnut Street to the cinema, down on Philadelphia’s waterfront. Jobless and with no plan for what to do with my life, I resolved on the long walk home to scrape together enough money to travel by train across Europe, where I imagined there were plenty of Celines waiting to meet me. It took me two years, but I did just that in 1997.
On that trip, I met a girl from Finland on a train bound for Prague, and we shared a few memorable days together before it was time for me to return to another dingy apartment – this one a $550-a-month, cockroach infested studio in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Unlike Jesse and Celine, I never saw the lass from Finland again, though I did get an amusing, somewhat incoherent letter from her a year later, clearly written in a state of inebriation.
Just weeks after returning from that trip, I decided to move to Chicago, where I met my future wife on my very first day in town. Leaving New York turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Our relationship has been a lot smoother than Jesse and Celine’s, but we still loved “Before Sunset” when we saw it in 2004. Jesse was stuck in an unhappy marriage and was trying to decide if he should stay with Celine in Paris; I was a diplomat who was depressed about the prospect of spending the next two years in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing “Before Midnight” for at least a year. It feels a little like catching up with old friends you haven’t seen in nine years each time these films come out, and I was particularly excited by the fact that this film was shot in Greece, a country that I love. Linklater’s trilogy is about the big decisions we face in life and how we make them. Jesse always seem to face these crossroads while on trips – first in Vienna, then in Paris and most recently in Greece, where he tries to convince Celine to move to Chicago to be closer to his son.
The fact that the couple faces these major life decisions while on the road rings very true for me. When you’re far from home and removed from your daily routine, you can’t help but examine your life and ponder the big picture questions.
“Before Midnight” has received rave reviews but I wasn’t in love with this film. It had its moments and if you’ve seen the first two, you will want to see it, but I found listening to Celine’s litany of complaints, which are littered throughout the film, exhausting and stressful.
Despite that, I still enjoyed having the opportunity to think back to where I was in 1995 and 2004, and how I’ve changed since I saw the two previous films. Hawke and Delpy are still attractive but seeing how they’ve aged on the big screen is also a reminder of how quickly time flies by. To me, the last 18 years since I saw the first film have gone by in a blur, and the notion that the next 18 will go by just as fast is a little scary, but it’s also a great reminder that life is short, so you’ve got to seize the day.
The other redeeming quality of the new film, for me, is the cinematography. It’s a lush, almost sensual portrait of Greece at its very best – the crumbling ruins, the seaside tavernas and the heartbreaking vistas of the Aegean are all there. According to The Greek Star, the film was shot in the southwest Peloponnese, specifically at the Kalamta airport, and in the villages of Pylos, Koroni and Kardamili in the Messinia region. According to About.com, one of the scenes was shot in the former home of the legendary writer and traveler Patrick Leigh Fermor in Kardamili. The film is a great advertisement for Greek tourism, and since I’ve never been to this part of Greece, Jesse and Celine have once again given me another great reason to hit the road.