Andrei Tarkovsky infamously described cinema as sculpting in time, and Richard Linklater is a filmmaker who has taken this maxim as a literal pursuit, whose films take the medium’s potential for temporal manipulation as an opportunity to create a greater reality than our own. By poeticizing the passage of time with his films, Linklater creates a new awareness of the grace notes that can be found in the absurdity of impermanence. His films are also finely attuned to the way we experience time, and the way we deceptively shape our memory to structure a narrative of the past. The inconceivable fortunes and ravages brought on by time’s passing can never be predicted, a truism Linklater understands and overcomes by developing a story that spans decades, the revered Before Trilogy. Comprised of Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013), these three films follow the relationship between Jesse and Celine, a pair of lovers who have an incomparable significance in one another’s lives as they mutually experience the possibilities and disappointments that come with the forward march towards the future.

Before Sunrise is the story of a chance encounter between Jesse and Celine who meet as strangers on a train and have only a few hours to spend together before Jesse’s departing flight in the morning. The two wander the streets of Vienna all night and converse tirelessly about themselves and their ideals, and by the time the sunrise harks the end of their romantic sojourn, they find themselves hopelessly distraught that they must part ways again. A montage of the spaces Jesse and Celine had passed through while together, now empty and still in the morning light, plays at the film’s conclusion. Their absence in this coda wordlessly enunciates the serendipity of their meeting and the transience of their time together; how absurd it seems for fate to both generously provide them the chance to form a deep connection while also forcing their separation. But these specific locations are almost irrelevant to the moments they shared, which were transcendent of the places and circumstances they inhabit. Despite the extraneous conditions that jeopardize their proximity they find solace in one another regardless, a romantic ideal that exalts a unifying and redeeming understanding between two people.

In Before Sunset, the story of Celine and Jesse reuniting and again sharing a short window together in Paris after nine years of being apart, the structure is reversed, and the film’s prologue is a montage of the places that the two will transit in the day to come. Opposed to Sunrise’s melancholic transience, this montage presents spaces laden with anticipation and creates an atmosphere of renewal and possibility. Much like how the morning pedestrians of Sunrise were indifferent to the sacred spots of the shared night in Vienna, the viewers of Sunset have no psychic associations with any of the places being shown but will gain them over the course of the film. This short but profound prologue reveals how any space can be illuminated by the human stories that it hosts, and in constructing this montage Linklater retrains the eye to perceive the immensity of all the spaces that surround us. 

The conversations between Jesse and Celine are primarily centered on the difficulty of grappling with the decisions they have made in their lives since Vienna, and the two lament how the forks in the road that are invisible or seem trivial become the major turning points in one’s life when looking back. In the same sense, every moment, every space is charged with the potential of being life altering. A newfound appreciation of the overwhelming possibilities that their lives can still carry invalidates Jesse and Celine’s initial despair at the fixed paths of their adulthood.

The narrative setting of Before Midnight is unique in the trilogy as it doesn’t develop around the constraint of time. After another nine year interval, Jesse and Celine are together as a couple with their children while on vacation in Greece, and are no longer victims of mischance but rather the adult determinism that tyrannizes their lives. They remark that time is passing faster every day now that they are firmly situated in the track of life they have chosen, and they have to confront the decisions they have made compared to all the other options those decisions foreclosed. Tensions mount between the two and questions of how life could have been different are raised with a pointed antagonism. In a hotel room meant to host a night of romantic intimacy, an explosive argument threatens their relationship; The two lob accusations of infidelity and revocations of love. It’s in the wake of the clash that Linklater again employs a short but insightful montage of images: the capacious bed unoccupied, the glasses of red wine untouched. The hotel room, which was meant to host a lovely shared evening, became an arena of vitriol and disavowal—the images of the montage are signifiers of the alternate realities that could have occurred under different circumstances. 

Among the countless trajectories a life may take, a person is only able to experience a single track of causality, but every moment is indelibly etched with all the possibilities of what may or may not happen. When the fantasized consideration of what may have been becomes a sustained fixation, dissatisfaction is inevitable, as is the case for Jesse and Celine. The two can only reconcile when they no longer entertain how the stream of their lives could have flowed differently, and instead try to find joy and redemption in the position they find themselves in presently. Though both can recognize they are far from living the idealistic romance they imagined for themselves in Vienna and again in Paris, the mutual disillusionment is buffered by their tenacity to go on living regardless. The paramount line from Jesse in regaining Celine’s confidence in their love: “It’s not perfect but it’s real.”

With the Before Trilogy, Linklater crafts one of the most momentous romances of modern cinema that compels his viewers to wrestle with the unknowability of the world, the infinitude of free will, and the ongoing mediation between fantasy and reality alongside Jesse and Celine. Before Sunrise contends that human connection and self-discovery triumph over any material obstacles of the present, that it is through interconnectivity that we can be saved in an absurd and seemingly senseless world. Its successor Before Sunset is an ode to the brimming possibilities of life that we have yet to encounter and a reminder that every present decision carries us towards a future that we ourselves are the authors of. Before Midnight offers an extension of the concepts put forth by the first two films: that the paths that are taken and the connections that are made must be taken with grace and humility, so as to regard time as a benefactor, not an oppressor.