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.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era