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'Lord of the Rings' for Cigarette-Smoking Cynics

How Richard Linklater's 'Before' trilogy defined my generation

In the mid-nineties, I was a college student who wore steel-toed boots and flannel shirts that swallowed my frame, and I spent my days in courtyards and coffee shops talking about boys, and philosophy, and the philosophy of boys. In other words, I was the ideal demographic for the 1995 romantic comedy Before Sunrise, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play tender-hearted adventurers Jesse and Celine, exploring Vienna and each other over the course of one fateful night.

The characters were very much of their era: Jesse with his fountain bangs and goatee; Celine, with her hippie hair and lumberjack attire. But the film, directed by Richard Linklater, was bravely sincere for its time. While other films dazzled with gunplay and fashionable ennui, Before Sunrise dared to be about nothing more than two people talking. Like the two sequels that followed, 2004’s Before Sunset and the latest, Before Midnight, the movie documented a life-changing moment as it unspooled, resulting in a profound trilogy that has come to define my generation. Which is weird, because 18 years ago, when the first movie came out, I didn’t even bother to see it.

I skipped Before Sunrise for a few reasons. Number one: hungover. Number two: Ethan Hawke. Poor Ethan Hawke had become a punching bag in those days for overeducated cynics like myself—and if there is a shorthand for my generation, it might be “overeducated cynics”—and we resented him and his soul patch for having literary pretensions (as if we did not) and for being the entitled, sneering guy in Reality Bites, which was “the tale of our generation” long before a sweet little movie about romantic longing ever was.

The third reason, however, is probably the only one that mattered. If you are a poor college student who would love nothing more than to travel across Europe by train and have your dumb life changed by a charming stranger—but instead you sit around in courtyards chain-smoking Marlboro Reds and dreaming about the dude from your Literature of the Holocaust class—then it is a particular ache to watch two people do just that. To add insult, Richard Linklater was a precocious talent from my very own town of Austin, Texas, which made me feel like he was feasting at the table of Young Hollywood while the rest of us scraped an empty plate. Watching any movie or TV show that “captures your generation” can be such a pill swallowed sideways. There must be many twentysomethings crafting their Lena Dunham voodoo dolls right now.

But all that bitterness evaporated in 2004, when I saw Before Sunset, a sequel that nobody asked for but everyone needed. Critics fell all over themselves praising that modest, intimate, 77-minute film, which found the characters reunited in Paris after nine years and inching toward romance once more. As the camera twisted along cobbled streets and through cafes, tracking a path as tangled as its characters’ emotions, the film illustrated just how tense it can be to watch two people, locked in a deep conversation about the dark compromises of adulthood.  

Now in my late twenties, and prickled with dissatisfaction for a relationship heading toward its end, I watched both Before films back-to-back, and was captivated by them. I no longer felt threatened by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy—as if their success and beauty, as actors or characters, somehow took away from mine—but felt a swell of gratitude to find my own reflection in them. Yes, this was me, wrestling with the romantic ideals I thought I had dismantled back in those courtyards, with all those books and cigarettes. Yes, this was me, haunted by loneliness, despite all the fortresses I’d built to keep it at bay. Before Sunset ends with an artful cliffhanger: Can these two people save each other? Once a reminder of the life I could not afford, Jesse and Celine had now become a harbinger for the enduring romance I still longed to have.

So now we come to Before Midnight, which I had anticipated so much I thought for certain I would dislike it. (This is also a truism of my generation. We arm ourselves with disappointment, in case it comes in handy down the road.) But I was not. In fact, Before Midnight might be my favorite of the trilogy, because it has the gravity of passing time. Jesse and Celine’s story has taken on the rich complexities of a novel, or an ambitious documentary series, like a fictional version of Michael Apted’s ground-breaking Seven Up, in which we age along with the characters. When I saw Ethan Hawke in the first moments of the film—with his hair streaked by sun or hairstylists, and his casual indie rock shirt—he looked like a 41-year-old father still shopping at Urban Outfitters and praying to get a flirty glance from the cute sales clerk, which is to say he looked like half of the 41-year-old fathers I know. He had that sad displacement of the lion who fears he is no longer the strongest in the pride. And his character Jesse is quite literally displaced: He lives in France now, an ocean away from his teenage son, having followed his heart to a country whose language is not his own.

He and Celine have twin daughters now. And the opening scenes demonstrate that they are still deeply connected. But Celine’s face and body have been sagged by age and motherhood, and as the story unfolds, we see that her youthful daffiness has hardened into a bit of feminist rage. Celine has always wrestled with the conflict between wanting her independence and needing to be loved. And now, she finds herself twisted in a knot of resentment toward her husband, the world that has rendered her erotic self invisible, and toward herself perhaps, though that one is the trickiest to articulate.

Over a night in a hotel room that was meant to be a respite from their troubles, she unleashes a sea of discontent. Jesse watches from the bed, eyebrows flickering with frustration and pain, as she paces and fumes, indulging monologues that are flinty, irrational, and maddening, but my God, I was with her every step of the way. I have sought out my own destruction in so many arguments in this exact same manner: Tell me I’m fat; tell me you fucked her; tell me you’re leaving. Here’s a rock—please bash me now.

The sequence lasts about 30 minutes, and it is as dazzling and heart-pounding as any car chase or sci-fi action sequence I’ve ever seen. Trilogies are usually escapist fun; the Before series is unique because it’s about two people grappling with the realities of their lives. And unlike those bloated cinematic tales, which tend to grow thinner with each sequel, this one multiplies with meaning as it grows older. Each entry digs deeper into its characters’ struggles. Each entry brings echoes of its complex past, even as it asks the same questions: What is happiness? What the hell are we doing here? How much can I expect from love? And in this way, it is not a generational tale, but an eternal one. Of course, every generation gets to add its own unique notes: Ours included Doc Martens, and college radio, and sarcasm. But we all search to find the answers, and we all fail—and the vain struggle becomes the hero’s journey.

As Before Midnight ends, it is clear that these two people cannot save each other. Two people rarely can, which is why the movies turned that wish into such a soft and easy lie. But Jesse and Celine face a question that is just as nail-biting and just as important: Can these two people stay together long enough to save themselves?

Sarah Hepola is the personal essays editor at Salon. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Glamour, The Guardian, and The Morning News, where she is a contributing writer. She lives in Dallas with an orange cat named Bubba.