Every time we say goodbye

Richard Linklater’s remarkable 20-year, three-film journey, from sunrise to midnight.

The new film Before Midnight brings prickly realism to a trilogy that began 18 years ago as a purely wistful romance between a French woman, Céline (Julie Delpy), and an American man, Jesse (Ethan Hawke). It’s surely the most melancholic ticket in town, though it is not without competition from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, which is enjoying a spectacular revival in London.

That musical draws its mighty emotional weight from a counter-chronological structure. The story makes a series of backwards leaps every three or four years from 1976 to 1957, producing a contradictory flavour: the optimism of its last scene is undercut by our knowledge, unavailable to the characters, of the crises and compromises to come. Anyone who has reached the age of 40 or so could likely build similar material from crossroads moments in their own lives, though chances are the songs wouldn’t be quite as hummable.

Or they could turn instead to the Before films. Richard Linklater’s trilogy drops anchor at nine-yearly intervals in the lives of Céline and Jesse. We have already seen them in their boundless twenties in Before Sunrise (1995) and their disillusioned but still-hopeful thirties in Before Sunset (2004). (In between those movies, they also made a fleeting appearance in Linklater’s 2001 rotoscope animation Waking Life.) Before Midnight is a despatch from their battle-scarred forties.

They first met on a train in Before Sunrise. Jesse convinced Céline that she should disembark with him in Vienna, where he had to kill time before his flight back to the US the following morning. When it seemed she might be wavering in her decision, he rather cleverly invited her to picture herself many years in the future, looking back from a possibly unsatisfactory marriage and wondering what might have happened had she alighted from the train with him. So began the chatterbox courtship of Céline and Jesse – their names deliberately evoking another pair of time-travellers in Jacques Rivette’s 1975 masterpiece Céline and Julie Go Boating.

Time is central to these movies. There’s always the impending deadline of a flight; in each film, someone has a plane to catch back to the US. Mortality loomed large from the pair’s earliest conversations, as it always does when the young advertise their seriousness to those they hope to sleep with. In Before Sunrise, Jesse announced his idea for a television show that would record uneventful lives 24 hours a day. (Four years later, Big Brother began its unstoppable run. Thanks for nothing, Jesse.) When the couple parted at the end of the film, they refused puritanically to exchange phone numbers and didn’t swap Facebook details because Mark Zuckerberg was only ten years old. Instead, they made a promise to meet again in Vienna in six months’ time. With no plans to continue the story, audiences were left dangling.

Nine years later, Before Sunset joined Jesse in Paris, where he was promoting his debut novel based on the events depicted in the first movie; Céline stopped by the bookshop and the pair used the next hour or so to catch up. Jesse, it turned out, had shown up that day in Vienna as planned; Céline had not. She blamed Jesse angrily for inflating her romantic expectations with that one magical night; Jesse mourned the joyless marriage he was now enduring with the mother of his child. In the process, he delivered a bitter aperçu that inspired more instances of sympathetic nodding among middle-aged couples than any other line in modern cinema: “I feel like I’m running a small nursery with someone I used to date.”

The components of the idea may not be unique: Before Sunrise is really a Generation X rerun of The Clock, Vincente Minnelli’s 1945 film about a shore-leave romance. But combined with the trilogy’s roaming camerawork and formalist tidiness (each film, for example, takes place in a different European location), something original has emerged. François Truffaut returned to his alter-ego Antoine Doinel on four further occasions after The 400 Blows in 1959. But to trace two characters over a period of almost 20 years, with their meandering conversations at the centre of the drama, is without precedent.

Even in the mid-1990s, when the quotable screenplay for Pulp Fiction sold like a boyband album, Before Sunrise was still a striking proposition: it was, literally, all talk. Céline and Jesse roamed around and rabbited on, the unobtrusive camera hanging on every word. For anyone who has kept faith with the couple over the years, wondering idly what they might be up to, feeling even that we have a genuine stake in their happiness, Before Midnight is difficult viewing. The romance of their initial connection has not insulated them from the same humdrum disappointments as anyone else.

Delpy and Hawke in the first film, "Before Sunrise".
Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

While the ending of Before Sunset left some doubt over whether Jesse would return to his family or remain with Celine, Before Midnight sets the record straight. The new film begins, rather than ends, with someone catching a plane – though now it is Jesse’s teenage son who is flying back to the US. It’s a mild shock to see cool-cat Jesse now in the role of the worrywart father. But that’s nothing compared to the shot that follows him out of the departures terminal. Look away now if you don’t want to know the score: Céline is waiting for him in the car along with their dozing twin daughters. That graceful camera movement registers in one unbroken shot the momentous changes that have happened since Before Sunset faded out to the sound of Nina Simone’s “Just in Time” (“Just in time/ You’ve found me”).

I want to be careful about spoiling surprises that have been nine years coming but it is enough to say that Before Midnight is the flintiest entry in the trilogy. It is set on Greece’s southern Peloponnese peninsula, where the couple have been enjoying the hospitality of an elderly writer friend (played by the esteemed Free Cinema cinematographer Walter Lassally). The first thing that struck me about Céline and Jesse’s drive back to the town from the airport was that they seemed to have an awful lot to say to one another for a couple who have been together nine years. For all the delightful verbal ping-pong between them, a more authentic representation might have been relaxed or rueful silence.

The other minor problem is that for the first half of the movie, we have to share Céline and Jesse with so many other minor characters whose claim on our sympathies is more tenuous; this seems to run against the minimalist DNA of the series. But the final hour adheres so fully to the trilogy’s formula (two people talking) that minor deviations are soon being used for jarring effect. When Celine storms out of the room during an argument with Jesse, it’s as though a hole has been torn in the space-time continuum. You can’t storm out in a Before movie: it’s just not done! You at least have to be present, even if you’re not saying anything, don’t you?

I was going to suggest that no one should think about watching Before Midnight without seeing the first two films in this series. But it would merely be a different experience to join the trilogy at the end and work backwards. In this age of viewer-led content, it could function as a DIY cinematic equivalent to Merrily We Roll Along, running in reverse from the jaded to the joyful. Talk about the differences between then and now: I wouldn’t have written the phrase “viewer-led content” 18 years ago. I’m not entirely happy to have written it now.

But then each of the Before films serves as a marker in our own lives in a way that nothing else does except for Granada television’s Up documentaries (which began in 1963 with Seven Up!). Viewers who have stuck with the series will find it difficult to suppress a game of personal compare-and-contrast. That is not in itself specific to this series – you might very well do the same thing each time you see a new James Bond movie – but the synchronicity between that sensation and the themes of this trilogy is emotionally overwhelming. The cinema screen is always part mirror, and here the reflections are more vivid and unsparing than ever.

I was 23 when I saw Before Sunrise. I’d been writing professionally about cinema and music for just over a year. (One of my earliest jobs was to review a gig by a promising new band called Oasis. Whatever happened to them?) Before Sunrise was my first assignment as a lead critic on the now-defunct Premiere magazine. I took the review in to the office on a floppy disk, email being almost as exotic as silver-foil jumpsuits and meals in pill form.

In personal terms, Before Sunrise will always have an additional piercing resonance for me, since I watched it a month before I separated from the mother of my first two children. As for why we broke up – well, Jesse puts those things better than I ever could. (Strangely, I also saw Before Midnight shortly after the end of my most recent relationship. The lesson being, I suppose, that the Before movies are a terrible jinx, or that I am.) But if you were in the right place at the right time when you saw these films, then it is possible that they represent for you, as they do for me, something unique in cinema: a stroll down someone else’s memory lane that has striking intersections with your own.

“Before Midnight” is released on 21 June

Julie Delpy as Céline and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in the third film of the trilogy, Before Midnight. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism