Deconstructing the Perfect Romance: A Consolidated Review of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight

Here at MNL Film Club, we review movies past and present. We’ll try to give you the coolest throwbacks since Doc Brown, on monthly thematic dosages. This February, we give you the Most Romantic Movies of the Past Decade. We took this matter seriously, and rest assured, the team argued gruellingly (nevertheless, no MNL Film Club writer was harmed in the writing of this piece) to present four of the most noteworthy romantic movies of the 2000s.

This, of course, begged the question: what is romance? The delineation between this genre and those others more popularly consumed is blurry and undefined. We took the high road and put it simply as that which features love. More importantly, romance is an exploration of love; it captures love at its most picturesque moments, and it exposes the ugly undersides of its aftermaths. Three of the best romantic films of the last decade that portray both the good and the bad in romance and love, in an ingenious package brimming with great chemistry and reasonable doses of reality are Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and Before Midnight.

Before Sunrise
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Cinematography: Lee Daniel
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Before Sunset
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Cinematography: Lee Daniel
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Before Midnight
Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Cinematography: Christos Voudouris
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Chance meetings in trains or other modes of transit seem to fit only in a fictional world. It is the perfect romantic set-up – strangers meet on board, fall in love instantly, and live a happier life than what the characters had that the audience was initially introduced to. That is, until the plot gets boring and the flaw of the whole situation betrays its premise. But that didn’t happen in the story of Jesse and Celine, the two lovers of the critically-acclaimed Before series. 

It all began with a meeting on a train between Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise. It just seemed inevitable that something is bound to happen as the two of them toured parts of Vienna, because nothing really happens for the most of it. They just talk. With my horrendously and fatally limited attention span, I didn’t watch the movie in its entirety in just one sitting. After deciding to come back, there was something that glued my eyes to the screen, in hopeful anticipation of how their story will unfold. 

It was a myriad of things that made it work – great characterization, plot possibilities, the picturesque setting, and arguably the best of it all, the genuine manner with which the characters effortlessly delivered the dialogue with tense chemistry. It was the way the entire story was told, the unabashed realness of it all, and the fact that it didn’t treat its audience as a stupid bunch who would be satisfied with saccharine scenes that would induce twitterpattering (I made an effort to find the closest translation to what Filipinos would term as kilig). It made an effort to make the audience think and supply them with enough wit to stay until the end. Really, how many movies have been able to do that?

The Before series taught us that the key to curing the perfect romantic plot of its fatal defect is dialogue. In Before Sunrise particularly, the characters have so much chemistry and so much going on inside of them, that the viewers forget that there is not much happening outside of them. In a span of two hours, they’ve walked around Vienna, visited a few landmarks, and stolen a kiss or two just to remind you that you’re still watching a romantic movie. And that’s it. No heavy plot twists, no one died while the other showed how he/she terribly still loves the deceased, and no love at first sight. No conversation was rushed; the characters discussed topics as if there was nothing else that they would rather be doing. The movie didn’t cheat its viewers out of what happened after they laid eyes on each other, as we all know that life doesn’t happen in a quirky montage. 

Still poignant and charming, Before Sunset is set nine years after the first film. We learn that Jesse and Celine did not meet after their monumental night in Vienna, because Celine’s grandmother died at the time. The characters have grown older, and we see a glimpse into the lives they’ve led after they parted. Jesse is married with one kid, and is a writer enjoying the success of his first book. Celine has a degree in political science and is sort of an activist.

There’s just something so hopeful about Before Sunset, be it the beautiful sunlit streets of Paris, the brightness of the scenes in contrast to the darker ones of the first movie, or the general disposition of the characters. As the movie progresses, it inflicts the viewers with a smidge of hope that maybe, all is not lost between the two of them. While Jesse dedicated an entire book to his experience with Celine, Celine on the other hand, wrote a song about it (Yes, I’m fighting for that theory). While Jesse constantly hints about how many times he asked the question “What if?” Celine admits that she feels the same way. After nine years, the plot asks the viewer to believe in love again. And true enough, as Celine sings her waltz, you realize something you’ve known all along, from the moment they saw each other again in that bookshop after nine years – Jesse will miss that plane. 

After years of what-ifs, Before Midnight presented the question of what now. It was the culmination of the three-part love story borne from Richard Linklater’s genius. And as the story plays out, it breaks the viewers’ hearts, little by little.

So we learn that Celine hasn’t worn a bra since 1994, and that she and Jesse now have twin daughters, and that they are staying in Greece for a vacation. Central to the plot, the main argument between the two sprang from the feeling that Jesse has with having to see his son from his first wife only occasionally. This spawns the will-they-or-won’t-they-debate for the entirety of the film, as they constantly challenge each other in ways that might end their relationship for good. 

The inevitability of the downfall was consuming, and the arguments they both asserted were valid points, that the viewer is fraught with what to expect next. It was the breakdown of what we have watched unfold for almost the last two decades, and it was coming to an abrupt end. It was painful to watch, more so that they’re constantly threatening each other to break while still hoping that it necessarily won’t – that they still have the spirit in them, in each other, to fight for true love. It was there – the true love that they stumbled upon in the first film, continued in the second – in all its alluring and devastating glory; the catch being that they had to accept it as it is. Out of the three films, this is where everything was created to perfection, most particularly the acting of the two leads. 

The trilogy may be the lowest grossing ever, but various elements of the series made for a new classic in the genre. After all, the raw and powerful emotion exuded in each scene is not so easy to forget. In a few years’ time, watching it will feel so familiar yet engaging still, that you’ll wonder whether somewhere in another beautiful European city, Jesse and Celine are walking and having an intense conversation about reincarnation, astrology, or dreams.


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