Richard Linklater’s first Oscar better not be Honorary.

I’m serious. Give the guy some hardware already.

He’s a true artist and visionary, taking a specific medium and bending it to his creative and innovative will. Boyhood is a beautiful, self-contained example of that, and probably his most-awarded work. But after seeing his Before trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, I’m convinced it’s his masterpiece. There are no movies — or pieces of art — like the three of them.

Before Sunrise has an initial romantic, cinematic hook. Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) meet on a train and decide to spend a whirlwind, unbelievable 24 hours together in Vienna. It’s a standard meet cute, but it escalates into something incredibly profound and complex. I found myself abandoning all cynicism because I was captivated (and a little frightened) by their bare honesty. Say Anything was made six years before Sunrise, yet Jesse seems like he inspired everything about Lloyd Dobler, and not the other way around. Celine, meanwhile, is everything but the Pixie in MPDG — which is to say she’s manic, dreamy and female. She’s impossible but impossible not to love. They enhance each other’s methodical brains, and they adapt to each other’s communication styles.

Jesse and Celine experience a whole relationship over the course of the day, and they jump into it instantly but naturally, with first-date-type awkward jitters at a record store to few-months-in conversations about past loves to one-year-anniversary speculation about future commitment. No interaction is shallow, no thought is insignificant and no emotion is invalid. Both of them want to be loved, and each trusts the other enough to move toward that goal at the same pace. By the time they agree to make the insane promise to see each other in the same spot, six months later, it doesn’t seem so insane.

Before Sunset picks up nine years later in Paris. Jesse and Celine never met up six months later, because life happens, but Celine happens upon Jesse’s book tour stop and they end up spending another day together. “Catching up” seems like such a trivial term to describe their interaction, because it’s so much more than that. There’s clearly still a very strong attraction between them, a what-if hanging over them as they walk around, but there’s also this very plain desire just to look at each other and feel that same inexplicable, strange comfort they felt with a stranger so many years ago. They look at each other with such longing, such understanding and such pain that it’s almost like the lives they’ve lead in the meantime really didn’t happen. When Jesse reveals he has a wife and kid back home, it shouldn’t be surprising but it is. The ease with which they — and the viewer — slip back into their love story is powerful, and it makes their (seemingly) final moments together in the car all the more overwhelming to watch. My friend and I were utterly destroyed (but completely satisfied!) by the ending: Though Jesse’s on his way to the airport, he stops at Celine’s apartment for a drink, and he stays there and misses his flight back to the U.S. It’s my favorite of the trilogy.

Before Midnight is the most emotionally draining of the three because it’s the most anchored in reality — despite the otherworldly-shades-of-blue setting of Greece. Nine years after Sunset, Jesse and Celine are married with kids and on vacation, and their dreamy love is subjected to the banalities, logistics and consequences of everyday life. They continue to push each other’s buttons, for lack of a better term, but it makes for tense disagreements instead of provoking conversations. We also get to see them as a real couple and as people in the world who interact with other people, their bubble burst and their normalcy exposed. The movie builds toward a heavy, cutting fight in a hotel room in which Jesse and Celine express their doubts about their relationship and its future.

I watched Midnight with the same Sunsetfriend, and she brought up a great point — over the course of the first 2.5 movies, we’re used to seeing them in varying states of bliss, so this fight is more impactful because it’s the first we’ve witnessed, but it can’t possibly be the actual first fight, can it? They seem so perfect, so yin to each others’ yang, that this fight feels like it’ll ruin everything. The ending — a semi-cheesy kiss-and-make-up moment — seems unsatisfying for that very reason, because their love is too powerful, too extreme to overcome a fight that basically consumes it. It would almost make more sense for them to split. But if they’ve indeed overcome many passionate fights over the course of their relationship, maybe this one is just a blip on the radar, and their reconciliation checks out.

Throughout the fight, I was on Jesse’s side, because Celine’s irrationality does not wane one bit over the course of 18 years. He made the sacrifice to live with her in France, so it seemed logical for me that she’d do the same for him and move the family to Chicago so he could be more of a parent to his older son from his previous marriage. But these kinds of decisions eluded them when they were falling in love, because they did so very quickly and uniquely. They never grew together, they just jumped in. They knew each other in pieces when they were young, but they only really comprehended each other when they were older. So it makes sense for their love story to culminate in something so intense and potentially life-altering. And even though the drama subsides curiously easily, it still pleases me to know that somewhere out there, on some continent, Jesse and Celine’s love story is still being written. Maybe we’ll see them in 2022, Hawke and Delpy’s schedules permitting.

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