Beginning with 1995's Before Sunrise, director Richard Linklater (fresh off his first two films Slacker and Dazed and Confused) introduced us to young lovers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and CÚline (Julie Delpy) during their first---and at the time, only---night together in Vienna. Though separated by distance when Jesse returned to America the next morning, he and CÚline were eventually reunited nine and eighteen years later in Linklater's Before Sunset and Before Midnight (and before that, a surreal meet-up in his visually ambitious 2001 film Waking Life). The staggered passage of time, so prominent in the director's recent Boyhood, is also employed here for a specific reason: though not originally planned as such, what's now known as The Before Trilogy explores two people desperate to connect at very different points in their lives. Criterion's new Blu-ray set rightly collects all three romantic dramas in one handy package, along with an assortment of bonus features that celebrate the trilogy and Linklater's career thus far.
Before Sunrise (1995) is the first and arguably most beloved of the bunch. Originally conceived as a one-off romantic drama by Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan (along with plenty of contributions by Hawke and Delpy, both uncredited due to screenwriting guild rules), it's equal parts dialogue and travelogue with a dash of youthful romanticism. Here we first meet Jesse and CÚline as separate passengers on a train bound for her native Paris; they strike up a conversation and feel an immediate, mutual attraction, enough so that Jesse convinces her to wander around Vienna before his flight leaves for America the next morning. It's a one-night stand with more flirting and conversation than actual sex, as Jesse and CÚline seem perfectly comfortable opening up to one another in ways that some couples take years to do (if ever). As the hours pass, their inevitable goodbye spoils the party...but it's fun while it lasts, making this marathon of quiet conversations and beautiful landscapes more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Originally planned as a purely American romance, Linklater eventually moved production to Europe and took advantage of foreign tax breaks. It was a smart move for the up-and-coming filmmaker, allowing this intimate drama to recoup more than its low production budget...and though Before Sunrise was hardly a box-office smash, it scored big with critics and carved out its own identity separate from other twentysomething movies and shows like Friends, Reality Bites, Singles, Clerks, and Linklater's earlier films. More importantly, the beautiful Austrian backdrop gives Before Sunrise a timeless atmosphere; even if you're not fully invested in some of the conversations, there's almost always interesting stuff in the background. But the film has aged fairly well for another reason: it's the beginning of something bigger instead of its own entity, even though Before Sunrise still works from either vantage point.
Before Sunset (2004) scales things back, but not by much: as the shortest entry in The Before Trilogy at 80 minutes and similar in tone to the original, it's easy to think of this follow-up as the opposite of what most sequels aim for. Picking up nine years after the events of Before Sunrise, Jesse and CÚline reunite in her hometown of Paris on the last stop of his book-signing tour. It's not just any book, of course: this dramatized account of their short relationship tells us that Jesse never let go of his feelings (despite now being a husband and father) and, though they failed to connect in Vienna due to a death in her family, it seems as if she didn't either. The spark is re-lit quickly and, aside from a few gentle barbs thrown at each other (largely due to their expectations of a life together that didn't go as planned), the overall tone of their reunion is still light, pleasant, occasionally bittersweet...and even presented in an almost real-time format, perfectly condensing a brief encounter that just might go on longer than expected.
Before Midnight (2013) might be the realest of the three, for better or worse, but that all depends on where you're at in life. Being relatively close to Jesse and CÚline's age at this point, seeing this third---and probably not final---chapter for the first time gave me the biggest dose of reality by a long shot, even though I've never set foot in Greece and only have one daughter, not twin girls or a son from a broken marriage. Yet that's where Jesse and CÚline are now: parents to Ella and Nina (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior), living comfortably in Greece with successful jobs...and for the first time on screen, their relationship shows signs of unraveling. Among other things, Before Midnight begins to expand the depth and development of these characters, partially due to the larger contributions of Hawke and Delpy (like Before Sunset, they're credited as co-screenwriters with Linklater). It's also the only Before film that has genuine supporting characters, though its scenic, honest, and often painfully intimate heart still resembles earlier installments. While Linklater has admitted Before Midnight was the most difficult production he's worked on thus far---and that includes Boyhood---it's possible that we'll meet up with Jesse and CÚline again in 2022.
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios, all three 1080p transfers of The Before Trilogy look uniformly excellent despite their source differences (the first two were shot on film, whereas Before Midnight was shot digitally). Image detail and textures are quite good overall; the first two films have a slightly more hazy and dreamlike appearance by design, and all feature bold but natural color palettes and many strong moments of depth. Obviously, a handful of nighttime and dimly-lit scenes don't pop quite as much---especially during Before Sunrise---but this is undoubtedly part of the source material and not bothersome at all. The majority of this incredibly scenic trilogy just looks fantastic, so long-time fans should feel happy with the obvious upgrades from earlier home video editions. It's unknown whether Before Midnight has been sourced from a different master than Sony's 2013 Blu-ray...but Criterion's 2K digital master is advertised as being "approved by director Richard Linklater", so take that for what it's worth.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures and stills featured in this review are decorative and do not represent the titles under review
The difference is source material doesn't make The Before Trilogy identical in the audio department either, but what's here is certainly good enough to get the job done. The more modest Before Sunrise features a DTS-HD 2.0 Surround track that's obviously very front-loaded, while both Before Sunset and Before Midnight up the ante with full DTS-HD 5.1 Surround tracks. The discrete rear channel usage of those two obviously makes for a slightly more immediate and attention-grabbing experience (although not by much, since all three films add up to five hours of non-stop talking)...but even the scaled-down Before Sunrise, with its slightly thinner-sounding dialogue and quieter moments, still manages to impress at times. Speech---and there's a lot of speech here, folks---is always clear and easy to understand, with optional English subtitles for everything but the sporadic foreign background conversations. Overall, this is a fine trio of tracks that pull their own weight during these humble but intimate films.
Menu Design, Presentation, & Packaging
As usual, Criterion's menu interfaces are smooth and easy to navigate. Each film is given separate options for chapter selection, setup, bonus features and more, with relatively quick loading time and a handy "Resume" function. Similar to many other Criterion multi-film boxed sets, The Before Trilogy
is packaged in three digipak cases inside a sturdy outer slipcase; also included is a handsome Booklet
featuring technical specs, cast/crew credits, and an essay on the trilogy by film critic Dennis Lim. As for the individual films' newly-painted cover artwork? Swing and a miss.
includes a fairly standard trio of supplements. First up is a vintage Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
(6 minutes), largely made up of interview clips with Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, who discuss their characters in the film. The more recent "3x2: A Conversation"
(40 minutes) sits down with film scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone, who discuss Linklater's work while comparing and contrasting all three films. Finally, "The Space In-Between"
(44 minutes) reunites Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy for a more retrospective look back at the film and its production, as well as the trilogy as a whole. It's a candid, interesting, and engaging chat that die-hard fans will appreciate.
Before Sunset takes a different approach, aside from a similar Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (10 minutes) featuring interviews with the cast and crew during the film's production. "On Cinema & Time" (9 minutes), though ironically a bit too short for its own good, is a new video essay by enigmatic director :: kogonada that splices in phone audio with clips of Linklater's films and many others. Broadening the focus is "Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny" (90 minutes), a 2016 installment of PBS' American Masters that features cast members, crew, and contemporaries including Hawke, Delpy, Jonathan Demme, Jack Black, Patricia Arquette, Matthew McConoughey, Kevin Smith, Ellar Coltrane, Linklater's long-time editor Sandra Adair, SXSW founder Louis Black, sister Tricia Linklater, and several others. It's a thoughtful, detailed, and career-spanning piece that includes no shortage of vintage photos, on-set footage, a tour of his secluded property, and even a few neat souvenirs from Linklater's personal collection.
Before Midnight leads off with an extra originally created for Sony's 2013 Blu-ray: a feature-length Audio Commentary with Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (sadly, a shorter featurette and lengthy Q&A from that disc have not been carried over). Other than that, we once again get two new supplements: "After Before" (31 minutes) is a documentary by co-producer/actor Athina Rachel Tsangari shot during the film's production in Greece, while "Love Darkens and Deepens" (40 minutes, audio only) is a May 2013 episode of NPR's Fresh Air with host Terry Gross and Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke, who speak candidly about the evolution of the Before trilogy and its main characters.
As with most Criterion discs, these bonus features are well-produced and informative, although the lack of optional English subtitles continues to be disappointing. The exclusion of all three trailers is unfortunate as well, especially since the previous DVDs and Blu-ray included them. Still, this is a fine assortment of extras that fans will enjoy.
Though not originally conceived as a trilogy---or even more than one film---Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight feel perfectly organic as key parts of a unified whole. Featuring terrific atmospheres and engaging lead performances by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, all three installments feel immediately memorable and relevant for entirely different reasons---and though it helps if you first experienced one or more of these films at a similar point in your life (especially with a significant other), there are enough universal truths touched upon to make them more broadly accessible. Like Boyhood---though again, not planned as such---The Before Trilogy represents a bold creative path that obviously paid off in hindsight. Criterion's three-disc Blu-ray package rightly herds all three films together with terrific A/V presentations and, while the bonus features feel a little slim in certain areas, everything contained here is worth exploring for old and new fans alike. Very Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.