Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke, an Iconic French-American Romance

Before Midnight, the final volume in the trilogy by American director Richard Linklater, was released in theaters ten years ago. Following on from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the movie was the final chapter of a love affair between Jesse, the all-American character played by Ethan Hawke, and Céline, Julie Delpy’s French protagonist. Set in Vienna, where they meet, Paris, where they reunite, and the Peloponnese, where they quarrel, the three films accompany their characters through lingering, dialogue-focused sequences about love and their emotional and professional lives.
© Columbia Pictures, illustration Pat Côrtes

Act 1: Before Sunrise and Love’s First Spark

Richard Linklater was visiting Philadelphia in 1989. Originally from Austin, he was enjoying the change of scenery while exploring the city. Quite by chance, he stopped at a toy store, where he met an irresistibly charming saleswoman. He had only planned to stay in town for one night, but decided to go out on a limb and asked her if she would meet him after work. The young woman immediately said yes, and the pair spent the night wandering the streets. In the morning, they parted ways without exchanging addresses or telephone numbers. Several years later, having become a leading figure in American independent cinema, Richard Linklater hoped to bump into the toy seller every time he visited Philadelphia. Alas, this was little more than wishful thinking, and he never saw her again.

Richard Linklater wanted to create a screenplay inspired directly by this personal story. His first movie, Slacker (1990), had already portrayed characters chatting and wandering the streets. The next, Dazed and Confused (1993), was a huge success. The storyline and its male-dominated ensemble cast took the director back to his high-school days. But for this intimate story, Linklater wanted to focus on two protagonists and leave more room for the female role. Helped by his friend Kim Krizan, he drafted a few pages and set his story in San Antonio. Linklater then secured financing through Castle Rock Entertainment and began looking for actors. He met Ethan Hawke and asked him to come in for an audition.

The young leading man, whose Hollywood career was just taking off, swallowed his pride and was introduced to Julie Delpy, one of the first people the director had approached. The French actress had been developing an international career since her teens, working with Francophone directors, Polish filmmakers such as Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) and North Americans like Roger Avery (Killing Zoe). Delpy was bilingual, had studied film at New York University, and was eager to combine acting with directing. (She became an American citizen in 2001 and now lives in Los Angeles.) On screen, the chemistry between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy was explosive, with both acting freely, having fun, and improvising. Linklater had found his star couple.

“This is a young woman who had already worked with Godard and Kieślowski,” says Ethan Hawke. “I was so American to her. I was from Texas, I drank Coca-Cola, and I wore sneakers.” Jokes flew thick and fast and, right after the auditions, the actors and the director rewrote the script together. Under Julie Delpy’s influence, the focus shifted from America to Europe. Her character became French and the cultural chasms between the two protagonists become screenwriting gold. In the very first scene when they meet on a train, Céline is reading Madame Edwarda, Le mort, Histoire de l’œil, by French philosopher Georges Bataille. When she strikes up a conversation with Jesse, she tells him that she spent a summer studying in Los Angeles. She pokes fun at the fact that, like all Americans, he only speaks English, and when he asks what annoys her most, she replies: “I hate [that] each time I […] lose my temper […], [Americans] always go: ‘It’s so French! It’s so cute!’” Meanwhile, Jesse needles her for her arrogance and criticizes the terrible service in European restaurants.

The core of the script still had many gaps, which the trio filled in as they saw fit. One scene in particular remained unscripted, in which Céline and Jesse are in a café pretending to tell a friend about their encounter by imitating a telephone conversation. This is an intimate scene, and Julie Delpy later revealed that she had put a lot of herself into it: “The dialogue was written by two people who were in their thirties. We needed to bring that twentysomething freshness to it.” In the script, the scene was simply described as follows: “Best scene in movie: Relationship goes to the next level.” This next level was the result of everyone’s individual experiences and the perspectives of actors steeped in their own unique cultures.

© Warner Independent Pictures, illustration Pat Côrtes

Act 2: Before Sunset and the Great Revival

Before Sunrise ends on an optimistic note. The two protagonists part without exchanging addresses, but a reunion is arranged. The same place, Vienna Central Station, six months from now. The movie was an instant hit upon being released in January 1995, and made its budget back nine times over. The team went their separate ways, but when Linklater was preparing the script for his animated film Waking Life six years later, he thought about including a dialogue between Céline and Jesse. In the scene, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke revisit discussions started in Before Sunrise. This reunion opened up the possibility of continuing the experience. What became of Céline and Jesse? What kind of thirtysomethings are they?

“The scariest thing I’ve ever done in my film life is doing Before Sunset,” said Richard Linklater in a subsequent interview. The trio was keen to bring the story back to life, but neither audiences nor producers were expecting them to make a comeback. It was up to them to show that a second episode was worth it. Ethan Hawke had since become a novelist and was in Texas for a few days. Richard Linklater met up with him after a book signing and was struck by an obvious idea for a new script: Jesse has written a book about his night with Céline; she comes to visit him, and they reunite. A year of email exchanges followed. When the project stalled, Julie Delpy was the one to take the lead, sending forty pages of dialogue. This time, the two actors were officially screenwriters and their involvement in the project was fully recognized.

Before Sunset happens in real time on the streets of Paris, opening in the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. We soon learn that Céline was not at Vienna Central Station because her grandmother had died, while Jesse only has an hour before leaving for the airport. In the same long sequence shots, Céline and Jesse wander through the Latin Quarter, the Marais, the Coulée Verte garden built along an old railroad in the 12th arrondissement, and the banks of the Seine. They sit at the old-fashioned Pure Café on Rue Jean-Macé in the 11th arrondissement, walk along the courtyard of the Village Saint-Paul, a fourth-arrondissement enclave of boutiques and artists’ studios, and take a river boat that drops them off at Quai Henri-IV – an address that Jesse has trouble pronouncing, much to Céline’s amusement. In this Parisian stroll, the director takes liberties with the city’s geography. The banks of the Seine are near the Gare de Lyon station, while the Marais is next to the fifth arrondissement. But it doesn’t matter. “That’s the magic of cinema,” says the director. “You can cut. It’s not a geographical document.”

Along the way, Céline and Jesse take stock of their lives. He is an unhappy husband but a happy father. She is single. She lived in New York City for a time. Perhaps they crossed paths without realizing it. Before Sunset opts for a more melancholic tone; the protagonists are no longer the dreamers who once waited for the sun to rise while lying on the grass. Their experiences have hardened them, but the hope of renewal remains. At the end of the movie, Jesse walks Céline back to her apartment on Rue des Petites-Ecuries in the tenth arrondissement. Watching her dance to Nina Simone’s “Just in Time, Jesse decides to change his life. He won’t be taking the plane back to New York.

© Sony Pictures Classics, illustration Pat Côrtes

Act 3: Before Midnight and the Passing of Time

Nine years passed between Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Almost a decade, which was also the time it took for Céline and Jesse to return for their final installment, Before Midnight, released in 2013. Now 42, the pair are spending a summer in Greece. Jesse is on a writing residency, accompanied by Céline and their two daughters. Just like the two previous episodes, the movie focuses on conversations – in cars, at dinner tables with friends, on walks in the countryside, and in hotel rooms. The tension is palpable from the very first scene, and an argument between the two main characters – undeclared, insidious, then open – becomes the film’s main narrative focus.

The trio hesitated on several occasions while developing the screenplay. The film builds on the first two installments’ musings about the effects of time. Yet by deciding to make Céline and Jesse a couple, the writers ran the risk of depicting a waning love story. Everyone had countless ideas, but each person had to agree before anything was accepted and both Jesse and Céline’s perspectives had to be heard. The heart of the conflict revolves around the very nature of their romance, between France and the U.S. Just like in Before Sunrise, Céline is sarcastic, playing with American stereotypes – their love of baseball and donuts, their lack of knowledge about geography – but as they fight, her position is no longer a joke. Céline refuses to give up her French career to live in Chicago with Jesse’s son. As audiences, we can only imagine that the couple will not emerge from this tug-of-war unscathed.

To date, while the adventures of Céline and Jesse are left hanging at the end of Before Midnight, there have been no plans for a fourth episode. To fill the void, we can always immerse ourselves in another French-American rom-com piloted by Julie Delpy: the hilarious duology Two Days in Paris (2007) and Two Days in New York (2012)

Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.