'Before Midnight' and the Cinema's Greatest Trysts

lost in translation

“Well you know what it’s like when you first sleep with someone you don’t know. It’s…you like become this blank canvas, and it gives you an opportunity to project onto that canvas who you want to. And that’s what’s interesting because everybody does it.” – “Weekend”

“Before Midnight” opens today, and we at Film.com are all very excited about it. We’re excited about it because we’re fans of Richard Linklater, and so Vadim Rizov ranked all of his films. We’re excited about it because we love Ethan Hawke, for whom Jenni Miller took a look at his career resurgence. We’re excited about it because we love “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” which made this week’s Great Debate between Calum Marsh and Forrest Cardamenis all the more interesting a conflict. I’d like to add one more reason. I’m excited for “Before Midnight” because I adore its micro-genre.

I actually hadn’t seen either “Before Sunrise” or “Before Sunset” until about a month ago, while preparing for the New York premiere of “Before Midnight” at the Tribeca Film Festival. Yet I’ve loved films like it for years. Granted, there aren’t enough of them for it to be a real genre and at this point I think we’ve moved beyond that kind of categorization anyway. We still have “movements,” sure, but we get much more excited about genre-blending these days than their forming.

If I had to put a word to it, though, I might call them “tryst” films. These are movies about two people who meet and fall into romance, or lust, or even love at first sight. Yet whatever they have is fleeting, given a quick expiration date by a flight back to America or a ship pulling into port. They do a lot of talking. They may or may not actually consummate any sort of sexual relationship. And, perhaps most importantly, they never end with a classically happy Hollywood ending. Most romantic comedies, even the most tryst-like (“It Happened One Night,” “Roman Holiday”) don’t quite fit.

Here are seven of the best, presented with an eye on some of the tropes that connect them all.

The Chemistry – “Weekend,” directed by Andrew Haigh

Chemistry seems like an obvious thing to point out in a romance, but these films need a very particular kind. There needs to be the initial awkwardness of a first meeting, but also an underlying logic that makes these two people seem destined to be together. All of this needs to happen in the narrative space of about five minutes. Tom Cullen and Chris New are brilliant, selling every aspect of their short-lived affair. The sexual tension and resolution between them is the most naturalistic of the couples on this list, full of quiet joy and real emotional wisdom from both the actors and the script.

A Touch of Magic – “Friday Night,” directed by Claire Denis

While most of these films draw great strength from their realism, or at least the believability of their premise, the truth is that meetings like this are obviously rare in real life. The best of them know it and have a tendency to hint toward the supernatural. “Before Sunrise” winks in this direction, charming Jesse and Celine with a palm reader in a Vienna restaurant. “Friday Night” takes this one step further, surrounding lovers Laure and Jean with some mysteriously dancing inanimate objects and an otherworldly traffic jam.

The Romanic Locale – “Summertime,” directed by David Lean

“Before Sunrise” has Vienna and “Before Sunset” has Paris. And while neither city is completely unfamiliar for Celine, especially not the French capital, there’s a sense of discovery for both Jesse and the audience. Many of these films feature a backdrop, often one of continental glamor. In “Summertime” Katharine Hepburn falls in love with Renato and Venice equally, from the moment of her first glance at the city from the lagoon. David Lean’s gorgeous romance of an American abroad is still the definitive cinematic representation of La Serenissima in English and should stay that way.

Everybody Else – “Lost in Translation,” directed by Sofia Coppola

While the physical setting is often there to reinforce the romance, the characters on the fringe tend to serve as contrast. Some of this human chatter surrounds the lovers to make them seem more special, unique in a foreign or unfamiliar environment. This is often how Tokyo functions in “Lost in Translation,” though Sofia Coppola’s approach tends to waffle between pitch-perfect and unsettlingly Orientalist. Well-meaning advertisers and oblivious husbands add an air of thrilling exclusivity to the romance, allowing Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson to almost glow up against them.

Sexual Rule-Breaking – “Brief Crossing,” by Catherine Breillat

Warning: We've embedded the entire film below, some parts of which are NSFW.

“Anatomy of Hell” might be a more obvious Catherine Breillat film but its brutality and remove from reality make it more of a work of philosophy than a tryst film. The more muted (for Breillat, anyway) “Brief Crossing” on the other hand fits in quite well. It’s a work of transgressive sexual awakening for a married women and a teenage boy on an overnight ferry from France to the United Kingdom. It presents the awkwardness of their encounter with the director’s signature cold distance, which at the same time refuses to judge them. While no other film on this list has a pairing of such moral ambiguity, each of these relationships crosses some boundary with its (often only technically) casual sensuality.

The Confession – “Stuck Between Stations,” directed by Brady Kiernan

Almost every one of these films includes a moment of confession. This total opening of the characters to each other is a cornerstone of sorts, at the heart of the tryst’s resonance. The lovers can be totally honest because of their lack of formal relationship, a driving theme of “Before Sunset” in particular. “Stuck Between Stations” pushes this confessional approach to the brink. The bare truth shared by Becky (Zoe Lister Jones) and Casper (Sam Rosen) about the violence in their past is total. They get to be more truly themselves than ever before.

Recreation of Self – “Certified Copy,” directed by Abbas Kiarostami

“Certified Copy” might be the ultimate example of the genre, or at the very least the culmination of its themes. Author James Miller (William Shimell) and a nameless Juliette Binoche meet in Tuscany. They drive around in the gorgeous countryside discussing authenticity, sharing an artistic kinship with the canvasses of “Weekend.” Their relationship ebbs and flows before our eyes, and eventually shape shifts into something undefinable and without a single interpretation. The two are true with each other, genuine if not honest. Yet this openness isn’t simple or transparent, but rather as infinite and complex as the human character. “Certified Copy” seems to contain every nuance of the tryst but without any necessary reduction. It would make the perfect double feature with anything on this list, and may very well be the most resonant film of the 21st century so far.