An Analysis of the Lack of Independent Sequels in Relation to Richard Linkater’s Before Trilogy
By Jocelyn Illing
Over the past couple of decades, there has been thorough discussion regarding the definition of the independent film. Although the definition has grown and developed over time, there remains three basic categories of elements that make up an independent film. For example, the film’s style, such as its heavy usage of dialogue, a lack of a narrative, or experimental editing, might lead a film to be classified as independent. At the industrial level, independent films are often known to be low budget, self-funded and include friends or family of the filmmaker as cast or crew. Finally, the social or political elements of the film often expose its independent qualities. Independent films often comment on society and include controversial topics that aren’t normally fleshed out in mainstream films. However, although we have become aware of the independent film, what is rarely discussed is the idea of an independent sequel or series. Films that are made into trilogies or a series are often reserved for the blockbuster genre. It seems as though we are constantly hearing about the release of a science-fiction series or a sequel to the latest super-hero movie. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy serves as an important point in the history of American independent cinema for it challenges the idea of the Hollywood sequel. By expanding his 1995 film Before Sunrise into a three-part series, Linklater demonstrates the artistic potential in the sequel. Unlike many filmmakers, who take popular films and continue to milk them for all they’re worth through the production of sequels, Linklater’s intensions were purely artistic rather than financial. The expansion of the film allowed for him to explore the growth of the characters and how they react to the changes in society.
Before analyzing how the Before trilogy challenged the idea of the sequel, it is important to first understand more about the definition of the independent film. As previously mentioned, the criteria concerning what makes a film independent has changed over time. In the 1960s, independence was determined by “circumstances of financing and producing narrative fictional films for theatrical release” (Staiger, 2013, p.16), including the partnering with production companies with no relationship to a distribution firm. This decade of independent filmmaking mainly focussed on creating cheap films with elements directed toward specific audiences to bring in maximum profit (Staiger, 2013, p.18). As the popularity of independent films and creating films for a specific targeted audience grew in the 1970s, the Hollywood majors began to catch on. The “’New New’ Hollywood” (Staiger, 2013, p.18) began to rely on these targeted audiences, making films such as Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). The next two decades saw the partnership of the majors with independent producers in order to broaden their repertoire and their audiences (Staiger, 2013, p. 20). Since the arrival of the “indie” film, many scholars have put their spin on different definitions of the independent film. Two definitions that I find quite useful come from the scholarsnnette Insdorf and Geoff King. Insdorf states that an independent film “should have differences from Hollywood in terms of its mode of production, subject matter, and formal and stylistic conventions” (Staiger, 2013, p.21). Similarly, King argues that “American independent films depart from Hollywood filmmaking ‘either in making greater claims to verisimilitude/realism, or in the use of more complex, stylized, expressive, showy or self-conscious forms’ and ‘offer visions of society not usually found in the mainstream’” (Staiger, 2013, p.21). In his Before trilogy, Linklater takes these elements of the independent film and applies them to the Hollywood idea of the sequel, using it to explore the evolution of a couple’s relationship overtime.
When Linklater decided that he was going to expand Before Sunrise into an eighteen-year epic, it wasn’t for the money. After all, if you were going to make a sequel in order to make a profit, why would you wait nine years to do so? The extreme gap between the first and second film came from the indecisiveness of the director and principle actors. Because of their auteurist nature, and their investment in the story and characters, they had to come up with the right idea (Hepola, 2004, p.4). These films were going to be different from the other trilogies in Hollywood. One of the defining features of Before Sunrise is its notion that “experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary… [add] up to something worth documenting” (Horton, 1995, p.4). The three films follow a man and a woman essentially doing nothing but wandering around and talking. Linklater “dances around expectations” (Horton, 1995, p.7) regarding both the characters within the film and the audience. Just as “Jesse (Ethan Hawke)” and “Céline (Julie Delpy)” await the other person’s kiss, we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for them to stay together at the end of the film. Alas, due to poetic justice, we are left with a “will-they-won’t-they” cliff hanger. The sequels allow for the artists to return to their former characters and for the audience to continue watching “Jesse” and “Céline’s” relationship unfold. The large gaps between the films also coincide with the concept of time within the films. Each film returns to the protagonists during a different decade of their lives, with the first film following them in their twenties, the second in their thirties and the final film in their forties. During the gaps between the production of each film “the characters were still kind of alive in [Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy]” (Bozelka, 2008). The Before trilogy served as an experiment regarding what could be done with the sequel format with a purely artistic, rather than financial motive. What resulted was, as previously mentioned, an almost two-decade phenomenon, beautifully chronicling a relationship based on pure coincidence, or as it could be argued, fate.
Before Sunrise, the first film in the trilogy, follows “Jesse”, an American man, and “Céline”, a French woman who meet on a train in Europe and spend the night together in Vienna. Through his leads, Linklater portrays the cynicism of twenty-somethings in the nineties with charm, intelligence and wit. As they wander through the streets, “Jesse” and “Céline’s” conversations turn philosophical, discussing topics such as the roles of media, feminism and government brainwashing. Hawke and Delpy give engaging performances due to their “subtle reactions” and “relaxed comic touch” (Wrathall, 1995, p.39). Their performances, and the script’s balance between poetry and the everyday, are said to create the charm of the film (Wrathall, 1996, p.39). Unlike many mainstream Hollywood romance films, Linklater set out to mix together both conventional and radical elements. While we can spot many romance tropes within the film, such as the kiss on the Ferris wheel or the wine picnic in the park, Before Sunrise offers the audience new ways to tell a love story. Rather than presenting a couple going on a series of set up adventures, the film simply shows “people who are attracted by each other’s minds rather than simply by looks or…. ‘chemistry’” (Wrathall, 1996, p.39), enjoying each other’s company and conversation. The leads flirt and challenge each other, causing the audience to wonder what will happen to them by morning. The tone of the film is established upon “Jesse” and “Céline’s” first encounter on the train. As they sit on the train, exchanging glances, an attraction is established. However, instead of exchanging numbers, the two exit to the dining area of the train to begin a conversation that would last all evening. The end of the film, with “Jesse” seeing “Céline” off at the train station and them promising to meet up again, leaves us wondering if we will see these two reunite again onscreen.
Sure enough, nine years after the first film, and nine years after they first met, “Jesse” and “Céline” reunited in Before Sunset (Linklater, 2004). In keeping with the theme of time, Linklater presents the characters in new positions, expressing how their lives have changed in the past decade. “Jesse” and “Céline” are now both in relationships, with “Jesse” in a loveless marriage with the mother of his son and “Céline” longing for a feeling of intimacy. Not only do the changes in the characters reflect the artistic motivation for the sequels, for they portray the change in a couple’s relationship over time, but they again evoke an element of realism. Although the gaps between the films are prevalent, we are caught up with their lives as if we had been following them since the end of the previous film. Time in the film is “shaped in terms of emotion rather than conventional plotting” (Taubin, 2004, para. 3). Linklater challenges the unity of time and space with flashbacks to Before Sunrise, deadlines and a particularly empty setting. As “Jesse” and “Céline” wander through the streets of Paris, gone are the encounters with strangers and the awkward silences. The film is “structurally more spare and emotionally richer than” (Taubin, 2004, para. 7) its predecessor. A great example of the growth in “Jesse” and “Céline’s” relationship, as well as the changing commentary in the film, is the scene set in “Céline’s” apartment. By bringing “Jesse” into her home, “Céline” is letting down her guard and letting him into her world. Rather than the small chit chat and joking, they reveal different parts of themselves, such as “Céline’s” passion for music. The ending, as in the Before Sunrise, presents us with extreme uncertainty. Will they see each other again?
Before Midnight (Linklater, 2013), the final film in the series, depicts a middle aged “Jesse” and “Céline”, now married with twin girls, on vacation in Greece. Much has changed since the previous film. “Jesse” is now confronted with a deep feeling of guilt regarding leaving his son and “Céline” has turned into a type of workaholic. Arguably the film furthest from the mainstream definition of a romance film, Before Midnight depicts the challenges of long-term commitment. “[W]here the earlier two films achieve erotic release, the third keeps veering off into irritable argument” (Lopate, 2013, para.1). Playful flirting and spontaneity have been replaced by petty lovers-quarrels and routine. However, it can be argued that their fights are “proof that the couple has finally achieved a true intimacy” (Lopate, 2013, para. 1.) The film also represents the changing nature of cinematic romance in the digital age (Sandhu, 2013, para. 7). With the invention of cell phones and social media, it seems as if the spontaneity in romance has died. We are constantly in communication with each other and have access to each other’s personal information. “Jesse” and “Céline” cannot escape this reality, as they are constantly seen on their cell phones, sending text messages and taking photos. Towards the end of the film, we are presented with the couple’s most eruptive argument. Alone together in the hotel, “Jesse” and “Céline” contemplate their relationship and if it is worth continuing. As the scene progresses, it seems as if they are going to breakup. However, they don’t. Instead, they laugh. In this film, Linklater creates a new definition of romance. “’The fact that they are still together is pretty romantic. But it’s a different, more hard-earned romance’” (Lim, 2013).
Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy challenges mainstream Hollywood by expanding an independent film into a three-part epic. Unlike many directors who choose to make sequels, usually blockbuster films, Linklater’s intensions were purely artistic. He and his actors felt an extreme connection with the characters that they had developed and wanted to chronicle their relationship over real and cinematic time. What resulted was an honest love story, following a couple from their first encounter to their eventual achievement of true intimacy, complete with uncertainty, charm and tenderness.
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Horton, R. “Offhand enchantment – ‘Before Sunrise’ directed by Richard Linklater.” Film Comment 31.1 (1995): 4. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Lim, D. “Nine more years on, and still talking.” New York Times (2013): 3. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Lopate, P. “Before Midnight.” Essential Cinema (2013): n. pag. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Sandhu, S. “Before Midnight.” Sight & Sound 23.7 (2013): 71. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Staiger, J. “Independent of What? Sorting out differences from Hollywood.” American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond. New York: Routledge, 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Taubin, A. “Nine Years On, Richard Linklater Reunites Ethan Hawke And Julie Delpy For Another Brief Encounter In This Miraculous Real-time Sequel To ‘Before Sunrise’.” Film Comment 40.3 (2004): 18. Web. 31 Oct, 2018
Wrathall, J. “Before Sunrise.” Sight & Sound 5.4 (1995): 39. Web. 31 Oct. 2018