“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Ever since H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine hit shelves in 1895, people have obsessed over the notion of time travel, and from Ray Bradbury to the Russo brothers, artists and storytellers have spun their own tales from the conceit. Perhaps the allure stems from the two predominant reasons one would travel through time in the first place: To change the past or to learn about the future. Either option speaks to distinctly human fears and dissatisfactions—we are drawn to time travel because it represents the concrete possibility of being able to skip or change the bad parts of life and keep only the good.
Of course, that kind of time travel doesn’t exist in real life, and much of the art and allure of storytelling comes from the fact that we can neither change the past nor know the future. Both coming to terms with the former and exercising our agency on the latter, however, are frightening prospects, fraught with the thorny complexity inherent in the messy business of living, and so we retreat to our stories, searching for a more easily attainable alternative to time travel that will change our lives just the same.
The closest we can come to the satisfaction of changing the past is in stories of second chances, of clean breaks from our old lives and into some great beyond. These stories have been told for millennia, and continue to be told in myriad permutations today. Lady Bird McPherson wants to go to New York to escape her life in California, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch flies to California to escape her life in New York. Perhaps every one of us has our own New York or California—some geographical or metaphorical elsewhere we imagine dropping everything for because real, lasting happiness always looks like it’s anywhere but wherever we are.
Never mind, of course, that these stories don’t work out as planned for either of those characters, nor do they always work out for those of us who actually relocated ourselves to their elsewhere. Whether destined or damned, anything is better than feeling dissatisfaction calcify around you, your past and future becoming more and more unchangeable by the day. But there is no such thing as a clean break. We will always have our baggage, and there is no un-calcifying of the life we’ve lived, the identity we’ve built piecemeal, brick by brick, over decades.
Perhaps no director understands this more keenly than Richard Linklater, cinema’s foremost chronicler of time. His Before trilogy is this very narrative arc in action, with Before Sunrise representing the botched first attempt at romance between our two protagonists, and Before Sunset nine years later representing the do-over—the inflection point where their lives pivot from the first to the second chapter. The third chapter, Before Midnight, deals with the fallout of this pivot, and is the installment whose tricky nuances seem most reflective of the nebulous uncertainty of lived experience.
Released after another nine-year gap, Before Midnight finds Jesse and Céline smack in the middle of their supposed second leases on life, now vacationing together in Greece with their twin daughters. They are not legally married but are, for all intents and purposes, husband and wife. Jesse remains a semi-prolific author of semi-esoteric novels about the passage of time, and Céline still works for an environmental NGO, though she is contemplating a move to a French government agency. They’re living the ideal version of the life they chose when Jesse decided to miss his flight at the end of the second movie, that radical choice that marked the end of his old life and the beginning of their new one.
At least, that’s true if you squint. Just like Fitzgerald’s boats, Jesse and Céline are borne back ceaselessly towards the past—to before Greece, and even Paris—throughout the film. Jesse’s baggage is more corporeal, with his son Hank serving as a handy stand-in for the responsibilities and promises he abdicated when he decided to run off with Céline. The angst of feeling like an absentee father living across an ocean from his child is made brutally real by Ethan Hawke’s performance, told more in unspoken glances and expressions than you’d expect from a trilogy famous for its dialogue.
Céline’s baggage, meanwhile, is a bit less cut and dry. Her regrets have to do with the opportunity cost of being a working mother on an indomitably artistic soul like hers more than any living, pimply-faced reminder of loss. In contrast to Hawke’s more passive (or passive-aggressive) turn, Julie Delpy brings the sound and fury to Before Midnight, her own regrets simmering into a hot rage as the day goes on. Late in the film, the couple’s differing approaches to conflict (be it with others or within themselves) is demonstrated when Jesse considers their daughters’ arguments over toys to be an ugly exhibition of selfishness, while Céline sees it as an emboldening expression of their fighting spirit.
The film’s famous climactic argument feels like the only logical conclusion for this critical mass of resentment built up between two undeniably similar but starkly different people: A 30-minute verbal bar-brawl that feels brutal and visceral precisely because of Jesse and Céline’s shared history, and our shared history with them. The whole episode plays out like a funhouse-mirror version of the walk-and-talks that have become the series’ signature: Just as freewheeling, just as indicative of the inarticulable spiritual connection these two seem to share, but this time in the service of division rather than reconciliation. Only soulmates with years of practice can land such precise body blows.
The rest of Before Midnight is, if not as explosive as that scene, equally preoccupied with the ways in which both the past and future seem to manifest themselves in the present. Earlier, the couple eat dinner with two other couples and the remaining halves of two others, each representing some alternate past, present, or future version of themselves. Viewed through this lens, the ensuing conversation takes on a more intricate meaning, as Jesse and Céline are largely relegated to the sidelines, providing some comic relief and knowing asides as the other three pairs plunge into their own philosophies on love, life, and temporality. For once in this trilogy, it isn’t about them.
Most relevant is the statement that closes the discussion, as Natalia, the oldest member of the group, discusses her late husband, and how she struggles more and more to remember little details about him as time goes by. “We appear, and we disappear,” she concludes, “And we are so important to some, but we are just passing through.” It feels like a deliberate callback to one of Before Sunset’s best lines, in which Céline argues, “You can never replace anyone, because everyone is made up of such beautiful, specific details.” Linklater’s trilogy is grounded on celebrating those very details, but like all things, they too will fade with the passage of time. And when that happens, what are you left with?
In this light, setting the film in Greece offers a stark contrast to Vienna and Paris, where their love affair found its genesis and renaissance, respectively. Greece is beautiful here precisely because, unlike its aforementioned European neighbors, it is no city of light. Like all things eventually, the Greek landscape has been dimmed by the passage of time. Early on, the pair drive past some ruins their daughters had wanted to see. Later, as they walk to the hotel, they enter a church from the Byzantine era, still standing despite being vandalized by Turks in the 13th century. Later still, Céline references the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and how the destruction of Pompeii had been so sudden that there were couples perfectly preserved mid-coitus. In Greece, we see that the passage of time is inherently violent and will leave us all in varying states of disarray and desolation, perfectly preserved as we were, calcified and inescapable, eternally trapped in the past even as we are marched into the present and future along with the rest of the world.
Thus, like Byron’s Ozymandias, it seems we are all doomed to obsolescence and disrepair. Our first, second, or seventh leases on life, radical as they may feel in the moment, are all just inflection points on the same continuous Cartesian graph: brief redirections, doomed to give way to other redirections, but still anchored on redirections past. If time is linear, then regardless of how many mulligans we call on our lives, we will still find ourselves hurtling towards the same oblivion, still saddled with the same baggage we had at 25 even as we turn 50 or 75. If this is the case, then, isn’t despair the only logical response to a predetermined end?
The last scene of Before Midnight proposes a compromise. After their blow-up in the hotel room, Jesse approaches a still-stewing Céline at the pier. He slips into the role of a time traveler, ostensibly sent by “82-year-old Céline” as a guide for the rest of her life. She rebukes him, and they argue a bit more, until Céline decides to play along, signaling a temporary détente. The film ends with Céline’s wry, beautiful postscript, in reference to a line in her 82-year-old self’s supposed letter about the best sex in her life happening in the Southern Peloponnese: “It must have been one hell of a night we’re about to have.”
To unpack this line is to unpack Linklater’s career-long preoccupation with time and the way we perceive its passage, and it offers a possible conclusion, or at least a mission statement. If other Linklater experiments discuss how we demarcate time (Dazed and Confused) or are shaped first and foremost by time’s passage (Boyhood), the Before series’ chief preoccupation has always been about the inner workings of time itself: About how the past, present, and future are so deeply intertwined with each other that they might as well be occurring simultaneously, with us vacillating from moment to moment as demanded, always moving from some after to some before, or during, and back.
Maybe time was never linear to begin with, and we just made it so in order to keep things simple. In reality, maybe time is less a stream we dip our toes into and more an ocean we are constantly submerged in, its currents and undertows dragging us every which way but chronologically. In Before Midnight, Jesse and Céline are undeniably in 2013, but they are also at times in 2004 and 1995 and perhaps 2022, and occasionally even all at once. To attempt to break from the past entirely can only be vanity, because the past is just as much a part of our everyday milieu as the present and future. Our present existence is defined by the persistent tension between the stubborn intractability of yesterday and the eminent malleability of tomorrow, and it is the push-and-pull between these two forces that make up the meat of our lives.
This doesn’t need to be a tragedy. Each installment of the Before trilogy is more laden with history than the last, and every one of them ends with a question: Will they meet again in six months? Will they end up together this time? Will they stay together this time? Even as the future’s possibilities are narrowed day by day by the past, it’s still infinitely unknowable until it happens, for good or for ill. Before Midnight is a perfectly appropriate ending for this series—if indeed it is the end—but Jesse and Céline live on both before and after it. That is their burden, and we have ours.
Whether we like it or not, we are all time travelers here.