The first time that most of us saw or heard from Richard Linklater, he was getting into a cab at the start of Slacker, after disembarking from a bus in Austin, Texas. That was 1991. His monologue ran for about three minutes, with Linklater in the back seat talking to the driver, filmed with one stationary camera on the hood of the car. He told the driver about the dream he just had, in which he was reading a book (“It was my dream, so I guess I wrote it”). He said:
The premise for this book was that every thought you have creates its own reality. [With] every choice or decision you make, that thing you choose not to do fractures off and becomes its own reality and goes on from there forever. It’s like in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy meets the Scarecrow and they do that little dance at that crossroads and they think about going all those directions and they end up going in that one direction. All those other directions, just because they thought about it, become separate realities. They just went off from there and lived the rest of their lives. Entirely different movies but we’ll never see it because we’re trapped in this one reality restriction type of thing.Of course, Slacker is generated from a series of overlapping encounters, suggesting hundreds or thousands of other directions, or unseen stories. But while we’re still only in the first encounter, Linklater is already musing on what might have happened if he hadn’t jumped in the cab. Had he stayed at the station a little longer, he may have met a woman, they hit it off, they play a little pinball, she has this great apartment, he moves in with her …
Twenty-two years later, in Linklater’s 16th feature, Before Midnight (2013), Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) are sitting in the front seats of a car, filmed the same way Linklater was in Slacker, but for much longer – a 14-minute take – as they drive through southern Greece. That they are here together at all is because of the kind of chance, or possibility, that Linklater talked about back in Slacker. The two Before Sunrise sequels – Before Sunset and Before Midnight – seem to be demonstrations of his original idea. Not what actually happens, necessarily, but one of many possibilities. How many entirely different movies could there have been? Jesse got off the train in Vienna in 1994 but couldn’t persuade Celine to come with him. Or he did, but neither of them went back six months later. Or both did. Or he never wrote his book about her and never went to Paris to promote it. Or he went to Paris and she didn’t show up. Or he really did see her that time in New York, between the first and second movie, and she noticed him too. Or he caught his plane back to the States at the end of Before Sunset. And so on.
What’s different about this third movie, apart from that we’re now seeing Jesse and Celine in early middle age (they’re 41), with kids? The main thing is that there is no urgency to their meeting, no rush – the “before” doesn’t indicate a deadline. They have all the time in the world, yet they run out of space – the final third of the film is set in a small, anonymous hotel room, as though their problems start only when they stop moving, like Woody Allen’s dead shark. The natural visual language of these films is a long Steadicam take of the couple walking and talking, mostly from the front, occasionally from the back, rarely stopping. The films unfold at walking speed in long conversations that are so tightly rehearsed they strike us as spontaneous. Jesse and Celine’s relationship feels lived in now and the acting is better than ever, although there is one passage in which they still seem to me to be getting to know each other. As I wrote in this Werewolf piece, time is the real subject of the series – can you ever see yourself outside of time? This third film reinforces it. Jesse’s romantic pitch to Celine in the first movie – “Think of this as time travel” – returns in Before Midnight when (minor spoiler) he pretends to be back from the future with a letter. That moment rhymes with an earlier one: a reference to Jesse’s letter to his 40-year-old self, written when he was 20. It’s been 18 years since Vienna. You haven’t changed or you have changed. Are you now the dull husband that you warned her about on a train in 1994 or are you still that guy, despite everything? The gently philosophical, quietly emotional Before films remind us that the director of Bernie and Me and Orson Welles and The School of Rock is still that guy too. In the new one, Jesse even reads a book in a dream, just like Linklater did in Slacker. But it’s inevitable that death and grief are crowding in a little more now too, as we go from sunrise to sunset towards night (Greek actress Xenia Kalogeropoulou has the strongest non-Hawke/Delpy moment in the entire series as a widow). And that is just one of the reasons why Rossellini’s Journey to Italy has a part to play.