Less than seven minutes in I could sense there would be trouble. The opening scene took place in a rail car – scattered riders, mostly German. There was a French girl, then an American, both of them en route from Budapest to Vienna. Every passenger appeared either isolated or antagonized. This was, I assumed, an attempt at demonstrating how the entire world gets lost in translation. Only it smacked of condescension, and the ringing got much worse from there.
Over the course of a five-hour trilogy, Richard Linklater included enough intellectual name-dropping to put Woody Allen’s oeuvre to shame: Apollo, W.H. Auden, Honore de Balzac, Marlon Brando, Albert Einstein, Euripides, Sigmund Freud, Mahatma Gandhi, Mikhail Gorbachev, Vaclav Havel, Ernest Hemingway, Joan of Arc, Elia Kazan, Martin Luther King, Medea, Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, Django Reinhardt, Georges Seurat, William Shakespeare, Socrates, Dylan Thomas, Leo Tolstoy, Lech Walesa, Thomas Wolfe … Holy Fuck!
I mean, imagine, if you will, how intolerable it might be to sit across from anyone who would insist on cramming all those names into a dialogue?
In fact, let’s focus on that dialogue – a sprawling three-part journey overwrought with trite cliches. In Before Sunrise alone, we find strangers on a train, a first kiss on the Ferris wheel, Shakespeare in rags, and a goodbye on the platform. All of it set against a backdrop of sophomoric “love-is” platitudes. As a writer – and a filmmaker – one cannot pander to the skeptics whilst plundering the banal. I mean, one can, and many have, but one shouldn’t, and here’s why: The end result tastes like a big ole’ bowl o’ matzah … flat and kosher; white and dry.
The most satisfying part of Linklater’s trilogy occurs during the final 20 minutes of the third – if not final – installment. For it is only during that moment we, as audience members, no longer feel like voyeurs. The balance has shifted, forcing more weight upon the fulcrum. Is love real? Does it last? Is endurance a built-in part of the equation? Does familiarity breed contempt, diminishing the aura while strengthening the bone?
These are pressing issues, the kind that move beyond Linklater’s rhetoric – mindless chatter hinged on activism, atheism, Buddhism, Catholicism, chauvinism, communism, environmentalism, fascism, feminism, Quakerism … all the -isms, for that matter. After 18 years of open road, Before‘s protagonists have arrived upon an impasse. The primary sticking point being it took Jesse and Celine four-and-a-half hours worth of screen time just to get there. A development which begs the question, “Was the journey meant to be our vast reward?”
Well, assuming you’re a mainstream critic, the answer’s a resounding “YES”. Assuming you’re a financier, the answer would be “YES,” as well (a $30 million box office, more than triple the combined investment). But assuming you’re a moviegoer, that final answer might be skewed. Why? Because the Before trilogy does little to inspire, exhaust, arouse, or even entertain the average fan. At best, these films serve as nothing but a crutch for drooping egos.
None of which is to discount Linklater’s trilogy entirely. The location shoots are stunning, the performances are memorable, and the chemistry is palpable. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reside at the center of a love story for the ages. And yet, as that story progresses, a great deal of their dialogue is dedicated to reminiscing about things the two characters already know. Some of these exchanges might seem genuine, but they also strike the heart of why the whole thing’s so insufferable. The Before trilogy uses authenticity as a surrogate for style. To every would-be highbrow who might insist that “Jesse and Celine are just so … real,” I would fire back that so is smallpox.
The gravitas of any great piece of art resides within its powers of engagement. Throughout Linklater’s trilogy, I found myself more distracted than engaged. Comparatively speaking, I learned more about young love from Better Off Dead, more about middle age from American Beauty, and more about grand loss from reading Didion. What’s more, I can return to any one of these repeatedly, self-assured it’ll provide some just reward. The Before trilogy, on the other hand, feels oddly reminiscent of what Paul Nelson wrote upon first hearing Dylan’s Basement Tapes: “They’re either King Lear or nothing – take your pick, then leave ’em alone.”
Well, I’ve taken my pick. Now I’ll leave ’em alone.
(All three films in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy are currently available on DVD.)