Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy has garnered worldwide critical acclaim. Roxanne Sancto looks at why its exploration of love-across-decades has spoken to so many.

Love and relationships have always served as a profitable theme for the big screen. From the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind to Netflix’s 2019 rom-com, Someone Great, the complexity and nuances of romantic relationships offer inexhaustible fodder to drive storylines and characters forward and backward in their quest to find love. It is a topic that can be explored from so many angles and perspectives – while some directors choose to focus on the rose-tinted hue of a burgeoning romance (Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson), others are determined to unveil the dark side of love and long-term relationships in all its pragmatic, obsessive glory (Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine). And then there’s Richard Linklater, the humanist, who investigates everything in-between in his work, slowly peeling away the many layers that make up his characters’ emotional household.

Linklater has always been more interested in offering his audiences authentic and highly relatable viewing experiences rather than a form of escapism. He knows how to establish picturesque backdrops and wonderfully creative worlds such as those seen in the animated dreamscape that is Waking Life (2001) and the near-dystopian city in A Scanner Darkly (2006), but what he really thrives on is realism – in his characters, dialogues, settings and, most importantly, the passing of time. Even in his cult-classic, Slacker, which follows an ensemble of twenty-something misfits for a single day, the pace feels natural, as though we were joining them on a ride-along through their home city of Austin, Texas.

His natural approach to pacing made his Before trilogy – Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) – one of the most intimate and sincere portrayals of love to have ever graced the screen. In Before Sunrise, we get to know Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) in “real time” – that is to say, we get to know just as much about either character as they are willing to expose upon meeting on a Vienna-bound train. Following their initial meeting and conversation, they decide to wander through Vienna together, passing the time until Jesse is due at the airport to catch his flight back to the United States. The spontaneity of their meeting and impromptu non-adventure adds to the romantic feeling of this film as much as their profound conversations and the carefreeness that comes with being strangers in a strange land.

One of the most intimate and sincere portrayals of love to have ever graced the screen.

They spend the perfect night together simply strolling through the city, unrushed despite their time constraint. It almost feels like a fantasy, too good, too far removed from their realities to be true, which is why they decide not to exchange their details when dawn breaks and their time together is up. They arrange to meet at that exact spot six months later – but Céline never shows. This fact transpires nine years later, in Before Sunset, when Jesse tours Europe to promote his book This Time – a novel based on his unforgettable night with Céline. During a reading in Paris, he becomes distracted while two journalists argue over whether his novel’s protagonists meet again and that’s when he sees it – the smile he had longed to see again for so long. Despite their short-lived connection and the many, many years that have passed, they immediately ease back into the very dynamic that brought them together so effortlessly in a matter of one night. A flowing conversation, a meeting of souls and, once again, too little time.

We learn that Jesse is unhappily married and a father to a son named Hank; Céline is in a relationship but doesn’t seem satisfied with her life either. As they walk through Paris, they feel the same pleasant intensity as they did back then, only they are cautious to act on it, not only out of respect to their partners but fear of tainting what could remain to be something flawless and beautiful, unmuddied by every day life and all the challenges that come with it. To break the spell would be a risk – one they were ultimately willing to take.

That spell of uncomplicated ease and uncertainty may have broken, but it only made room for something much deeper. In Before Midnight, we get to see Jesse and Céline in a whole different light: now a long-term couple with twin daughters, a (step)son and their own careers, their priorities have shifted, as has their dynamic. Their relationship feels strong and unflappable even if the charm is fading under the difficulties of their present situation, because they are both fully aware that they have found something most people spend their lives searching for: real love. Not the kind of love we experience before sunrise, nor the type that happens before sunset. It’s the kind that kicks in just before midnight.