Memories of the Future

The Creation of Imagined Realities in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Time travelers are among us. Perhaps the most revelatory paradigm suggested by Albert Einstein is that, for the speed of light to hold as a universal constant, we must think of spacetime as a single four-dimensional field. Consider two passengers on a moving train. To each other, they appear immobile, lounging in their respective economy recliners. Yet to an observer at the station, both passengers are flying through the countryside. 

As suggested in Newton’s model of classical physics, all of this movement through space is relative; a passenger is only in motion relative to the observer at the station. However, if these three people could see a train moving at the speed of light, all would observe it going the same speed. Einstein’s solution to this apparent contradiction was to bend time: broadly speaking, his theory of general relativity states that the faster one moves through space, the slower they move through time. Time, like space, depends on one’s perspective. Those passengers on the train, whipping through space, are aging ever so slightly slower than the rest of us. They are, in a small but meaningful way, traveling through time.

To measure this difference, philosopher David Lewis established the ideas of external and personal time. External time unfolds like a bird’s unwavering flight path, but each of us may take a more winding route through time, depending on which road we choose—two journeys that end up at the same point. Likewise, two people living to the same age can undergo different durations of personal time, with one traveling greater physical and emotional distances. Modern physics suggests that the oft-stated youthful goal of living a full life is no mere metaphor: if time is relative, the choices we make can change the amount of personal time we get on Earth. To enrich our life is literally to extend it.

Back to our passengers on the train. Just as a journey from Budapest to Paris can meander through Europe, with alternating high-speed corridors and layovers, so can the hours of those layovers contain for our passengers either a forgettable moment in time or the foundation for a braver, fuller existence. “Think of this as time travel,” Ethan Hawke’s Jesse urges Julie Delpy’s Céline in the opening moments of Before Sunrise. What he offers when he asks her to get off the train with him that fateful evening in Vienna is the opportunity to explore the possibilities of existence in greater depth—to move more fully through the world, and thus to slow time to a halt for just one night.

Richard Linklater is our generation’s premier cinematic chronicler of time, and the Before trilogy his greatest opus concerning its passage. Starting with Sunrise, the series checks in with Jesse and Céline at nine-year intervals. Hawke has described 1995’s Before Sunrise as depicting “what could be,” 2004’s Before Sunset as “what should have been,” and 2013’s Before Midnight as “what it is.” Taken as a body of work, the trilogy asks viewers to consider the tension between its fantasy and naturalism, and the extent of our own ability to exert similar control over a lonely world that ushers us through life without concern for whether we’ve found meaning in it.

It all starts with the connection, so apparent from Jesse and Céline’s opening conversation on the train. Their conversations span a multitude of topics, but always return to the central question of time. Jesse worries that modern souls are only a fraction of ancient souls, that life is somehow becoming less and less full. He tells Céline that when he looks at a child, his mind gravitates towards the thought that they’ll die someday. “You cannot conquer Time,” opines a W.H. Auden poem he finds particularly memorable.

This doesn’t stop him from trying. Jesse’s actions in Before Sunrise paint a picture of a man attempting, as he enters adulthood, to recapture control from a world he’s beginning to suspect might deliver him less than he feels he’s owed. He’s fascinated by the concept of a quotidian 24-hour documentary capturing every moment of an individual’s day—a useless exercise in all respects except accomplishing mastery over time’s essential unknowableness. In multiple instances, he attempts to bend the conventions of time to his will. He successfully pleads with a bartender to gift him a bottle of wine, which he promises to pay for at a later date. Daunted by the task of saying goodbye to Céline, he proposes getting it out of the way early. There’s an entitled petulance to all these actions; when a poet writes a spontaneous ode to milkshakes for the couple, Céline is thrilled, but Jesse doubts the artist’s authenticity. Surely much of the poem was pre-written; surely, in other words, no one is capable of exercising such command over time but him. Such is his fear of obscurity.

By contrast, Céline is more hopeful about the possibility of creating meaning in time. She remembers returning to the gravestone of a 13-year-old girl she visited in her youth, and takes solace in the fact that this girl is still the same age. “[The artist’s] human figures are always so transitory,” she admires of a painting, demonstrating the type of acceptance Jesse lacks. This may be, in part, because she has more humble expectations of the world. Céline wants to love someone and be loved by them; Jesse wants to be remembered for having excelled at something. 

These differences hint at what attracts the two prospective lovers to each other, and what will draw them into conflict in the future. Despite both characters’ unseasoned moral systems, Céline already centers the material well-being of humanity at large in a far more earthly way than Jesse, with his sometimes pontificatory emphasis on thought experiments. While Céline mourns that her grandmother spent much of her life with a man she didn’t love, Jesse thinks being able to hold onto the fantasy of true love with an old flame was more valuable for her than attaining it could ever be.

It’s ironic, then, that when the two agree to meet in six months to rekindle their connection, it’s the death of this grandmother that prevents Céline from keeping the appointment. As we learn once the characters reconnect nine years later in Before Sunset, Céline spent the day of their would-be meeting at her grandmother’s funeral while an aimless, dejected Jesse walked around Vienna for a couple days before returning home. Though the events occured offscreen, we can infer that they represent the worst type of psychological test for both of them. While Céline reckons with the tangible pain of loss and mourning, Jesse is left to entertain the infinite, unknowable possibilities explaining Céline’s absence. “I might have given up on the whole idea of romantic love…I might have put it to bed that day when you weren’t there,” he eventually tells her at their second meeting. Jesse has written a best-selling book about their evening in Vienna, and stops along his book tour at Céline’s favorite bookstore in Paris. The nine years that have passed, both on and offscreen, give added weight to the sequel’s structural recurrence. Once again, we have Jesse and Céline, walking the streets of a European city, hoping to wring more personal time out of the small interval of external time afforded to them.

The differences that have occurred in the interim nine years are significant. While once the two saw each other as a way to peek into the future, now their conversation reflects on regrets and disappointments. In some ways, the prevailing mood of Sunset is due to Jesse and Céline’s attempt to reverse the direction of their time travel. Sunrise sees them as young idealists, reaching forward in time to preview a possible future. But, reappearing in each other’s lives, they both must reckon with the past. Jesse expresses the hope that “our lives might have been so much different” had they remained in contact, a sentiment Céline refutes only because she won’t allow herself to believe it. But she, too, feels the loss. “When you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect,” she eventually admits. Both of them, now more jaded and stuck in unhappy relationships, have realized that this isn’t the case. And now it’s Céline, previously the more hopeful of the two, who gives into nihilism: “The world might be less free than we think. Given these exact circumstances, [the same thing] will happen every time.”

On some level, she’s right. It’s an inherent property of the universe that systems tend to homogenize over time; it’s a similarly common outcome in modern society. “Growing up” often entails a series of compromises that our younger selves promised never to make. Jesse and Céline attempt to reject these compromises when trying to recapture the magic they bottled in Vienna—Jesse fighting against domestic unhappiness in a loveless marriage, and Céline against a tendency to withhold intimacy, keeping potential partners at a distance.

It’s important to note that the forward flow of the universe is not an absolute law but a statistical one. Almost all laws of the universe allow the possibility for time to move forward or backward; the only one that suggests its forward march is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Just as we understand that a crashed airplane can only exist after a working one, our perception of time moves forward because the increasing entropy of the universe is a statistical inevitability. Entropy, in broad conceptual terms, is a way to count the number of possible arrangements of atoms in a system; there are more ways for a plane to crash than to put itself back together, so time pushes the atoms making up the object towards destruction rather than repair.

Thus, the basic lesson of this law is one familiar to anyone who’s aged enough to experience significant disappointments: there are more ways in which situations can arrange themselves in the future than in the past, and most of them are messy. Or, as Jesse observes, “The world might be evolving the way a person evolves…Now I’m older, my problems are deeper, but I’m more equipped to handle them.” He and Céline argue about whether the world is getting better or worse, but what’s certain is that it can never be as simple as it was in Vienna. Like a plane, the connection they formed has been broken, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that among the infinite ways their lives can arrange themselves, it’s a high statistical improbability that the relationship can be put back together.

An improbability, but not an impossibility. The first step is to envision the past as present. Dreams recur throughout Sunrise, acting as a time machine of their own. Jesse dreams of seeing Céline pass before him time and time again on the train, giving him opportunities to recapture her presence. Meanwhile, she has a dream that she wakes up from her reality and is once again 23. These dreams speak to the characters’ desires to fight the laws of thermodynamics and reverse the flow of time, but accomplishing the task in reality will be more difficult, especially as opportunities and hope for connection are diminished. “Memory is a wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past,” argues Céline. Later: “It’s not even about you anymore. It’s about that time, that moment in time that is forever gone.” But is it? “A memory’s never finished as long as you’re alive,” rebuts Jesse.

Time travel to the past is accepted by scientists as far more difficult than to the future. The most feasible option is to travel through a wormhole, an incredibly dense body of mass close to a collapsing black hole. Such a wormhole would act as a tunnel folding the four-dimensional field of spacetime and connecting two different points, not just in space but in time. This, too, is a possibility that Jesse and Céline dream of in their attempts to recapture the past. For his next book, Jesse envisions a father being carried to the past by the pop song that played during his senior prom. “Just, like, for an instant,” he describes, “all his life is…folding in on itself, and it’s obvious to him that time is a lie.” Scientists have yet to discover a wormhole, or to formalize how human beings could safely enter one. But the curvature of spacetime depends on the mass of the two bodies in question, and on their gravitational pull towards one another.

This pull, between Jesse and Céline, is no ordinary one. In rediscovering it, and remembering the kinds of people they envision themselves to be around each other, they begin to accomplish the infinitesimally improbable. ​​“Now you’re here and I know where I’m going / No more doubt or fear,” sings Nina Simone as Jesse finally falls back into Céline’s permanent orbit at the end of the film. Their connection is revitalized, reversing their fortunes and taking them back in time to their blissful night in Vienna. “Baby,” Céline says, shifting the entropic flow of the universe, “you are gonna miss that plane.”

The great unsolved problem of modern physics concerns connecting general relativity, Einstein’s theory pertaining to the largest bodies in the universe, with quantum mechanics, the study of the most miniscule. Theories abound about how to tie together these two different understandings of the opposite ends of the universe; physicists persist in their belief that there’s a connection, mainly because the same fundamental properties of relativity appear. Quantum mechanics states that there’s a relationship between objects, and that the act of observing an object changes it. This law is the same that applies to planets, and one that applies to us, too, which we must all learn sooner or later: our existences are only meaningful in relation to each other.

Prior to measuring an object, its state is in an indeterminate superposition, meaning we can only predict where a particle could be. The issue with measuring a superposition is that our measurement itself interacts with the environment, and becomes entangled with the particles. This entanglement becomes exponentially more complicated as these particles interact, eventually, with particles throughout the entire universe. At some point, the measurement process becomes irreversible, changing the possibility-filled superposition into a classical, fixed-state object. Think of classical physics as the past, and quantum physics as the future. As long as a process is reversible, as long as the possibility of changing directions exists on the horizon, it’s still quantum, but only when irreversible and occurrent does an outcome become truly real.

Before Midnight, then, sees Jesse and Céline moving from the vast possibilities of their quantum future together to the irreversible responsibilities of real life. Another nine years after their rekindling, they’re co-parenting twin girls while Jesse attempts to see his son Henry as much as his custody agreement and a continent of distance allow. While Jesse and Céline defied the laws of thermodynamics in recapturing their connection in Sunset, it came at a cost; probability insists that the flow of time will ultimately move forward. “I know that if I miss these years, they are never coming back,” Jesse mourns to Céline. The same man who once felt excellence was more important than any relationship is now willing to give up both for the chance to see his son every other weekend.

Céline reads the writing on the wall. The pull between his life with her and his desire to be a part of his son’s is one with no satisfying resolution. “This is where it ends,” she predicts of their relationship. When he asks if she’s kidding, she gives an answer reflective of the couple’s quantum superposition: “I’m kidding. And I’m not.”

The stakes this time are different. The meandering discussions in Midnight’s predecessors are sidelined for the more practical concerns of raising a family. “I haven’t heard you think in years now,” Jesse tells Céline—not since before the children, when they had nowhere to be. The chemistry is still palpable, as each of them pokes fun at the other’s habits and flaws with a familiar ease demonstrating their nine years of partnership proper. But a real tension is also apparent. As Céline predicted, a reckoning is on the horizon, and whereas once their arguing held an innocent sensuality, now we can feel battle lines being drawn in the smallest disagreements, whether it be forgetting to put Henry’s science project in his bag or eating an apple meant for their daughter, Ella. One of the hardest things about relationships is the fact that blame for any problem can always be placed entirely on oneself or on one’s partner. An objective sense of truth is quite often unattainable, and pursuing it a fool’s game: as the adage goes, you can be right, or you can be in love.

The conversations held by the film’s main cast—which for the first time encompasses a host of named side characters—skew less towards the ethereal than in Sunrise or Sunset, and read more as an extension of Jesse and Céline’s ongoing negotiation about the validity of their relationship. Discussion at a dinner party one night ambles naturally, but circles the central question of what we owe our partners. Anna, a young actress, questions whether lifelong partnerships are still relevant in modern society. Patrick, the group’s elder statesman, stresses the importance of separating one’s identity from one’s partnership. However, the party—and, by extension, Linklater’s script—gives the last word to the widowed Natalia, who’s beginning to forget the details of her husband. “We appear and we disappear,” she sighs. “And we are so important to some, but we are just passing through.” He now lives on only in her memory. But this is still life, of a kind. “Every time I do something, I think of what he would say.” Their relationship has outlived him, and from the urgency of Jesse and Céline’s arguments about how to be present for their children, it’s clear that they understand the importance of remembrance as afterlife. In their maturation, they’ve embraced a quantum understanding of our world, realizing that our lives amount to something only in the event that we dedicate them to someone outside ourselves.

The topic of mortality, and our potential to outlive it through love, runs throughout the couple’s conversations. Céline tells a story of two lovers found buried together beneath the ashes of Pompeii—“bodies caught in their sleep, still lovingly holding each other”—immortalizing their connection outside the context of their difficulties. Jesse considers what their time together has truly amounted to: “I know you better than I know anybody else on the planet. But maybe that’s not saying much.” When their inevitable fight does occur once they’re alone in a hotel room, every past wrongdoing is fair game. Jesse is cruel, pedantic, and unaware of the unequal domestic labor in their partnership. Céline imbues her struggle with a larger struggle outside herself, sometimes conflating Jesse’s behavior with the behavior of men at large.

A part of this fight centers on a generic and well-documented dynamic of inequality in cishet couples, the logical extension of the trilogy’s ever-present gender essentialism. But the far more personal and interesting dynamic present is that of the couple’s specific situation, arising from their borrowing of time in the past. “I have orbited my entire life around you and you know it,” claims Jesse. We get the sense that he reminds Céline of this often, and the instinct is understandable, but did he really expect to travel through a wormhole and come out the other end unscathed? The assignment of fault moves to the larger realities of their life. The court case involving Henry’s custody was decided while Céline was giving birth, something she needed to do in Paris due to complications. Jesse’s ex-wife still hates them both as a consequence of their initial rendezvous in Paris. Jesse and Céline probably both cheated on each other at one point. With only minutes left in the movie, the situation seems irreparable.

And then, as Céline storms off and declares that she doesn’t love Jesse anymore, those young, starry-eyed time travelers reappear. This fight, as with so many other lovers’ quarrels, brings to bear the realities separating Jesse and Céline that have existed, in a quantum state, since their meeting. And while the unbridled possibility of youth left them room to explore galaxies, adulthood often means negotiating meaning in the smallest realms of domestic existence. Given a glimpse into the future in Sunrise, Jesse and Céline gazed upon the possibility of love to create a more meaningful existence. Even more rarely, they managed to travel back to this moment of possibility a second time in Sunset, creating another chance at building the future they wanted to see. But in Midnight, youth is behind them, and such travel to the past impossible. Even more damningly, the cruelty they’ve expressed to each other in their fight is now fixed in the past, an ugly part of their story that they’ll never be able to take back. But in a series so full of lessons about the relativity of time, perhaps its greatest one comes in its waning moments: there’s always a future in front of us.

“I’ve already lived through this night,” Jesse tells Céline from the patio overlooking the sea. “I’ve just traveled all the way from the future…You’re entering the best years of your life.” He pleads with Céline in his playful acting, asking her not to forget the past but to allow the future to take shape. “I’ve come to save you…from being blinded by the bullshit of life,” he tells her. “If you want true love, then this is it.” For however much of their story has already been written, their most important decision still lies in front of them. While Midnight sees them seeking the answer to their compatibility in their conversations, in their friendships, and in each other, it ultimately lies within themselves. For two people who’ve spent so much of their relationship fluctuating through time, it’s fitting that we end our journey with them looking towards the present. As the camera fades out on what’s likely to be our final image of these two weary travelers, Céline finds the ability to embrace the moment that their life together has reached: “It must have been one hell of a night we’re about to have.”