Before Midnight: Very True Romance

The third—and our reviewer hopes, not last—film in the superb 'Before' series is sharp, poignant, and absolutely riveting

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Despina Spyrou

Director Richard Linklater’s first two Before movies represented the types of romantic scenarios you dream of when you’re young—meeting the right person at an unexpected-but-perfect time and falling in love (Before Sunrise, 1995) and then encountering them again nine years later (Before Sunset, 2004), only to find that everything you felt before was not just genuine but was still alive; a fire that somehow burned through nine years of nights, stoked only by memories.

The third movie in Linklater’s series, the less joyous but even more incisive Before Midnight, exposes the underbelly of romance and not just the kind of idealized pairing that involves walks through the moonlight in Vienna and sunsets in Paris, but something more universal. It’s the counterpoint of reality to those earlier cinematic dreams. Picking up nearly a decade after the teasingly ambitious end of SunsetMidnight takes on the resentments, both deep and unavoidable as well as petty and pointless, of a long relationship and focuses on the work of being together. We always knew Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) were capable of fighting because they were both full of such fierce convictions, but this is the film where flirtatious sparring turns into a verbal battle. Before Midnight is too frank and funny to ever be a drag, but it confronts head on something true believers in the earlier films has had to or will have to face, the possibility that even the most exciting love affair grows tired.

(READ: Steve Snyder’s Q&A with Ethan Hawke)

Each of these movies can stand alone and has—no one knew what the Before series could become, back in 1994 when Linklater grabbed a screenplay, a camera, the 23 year-old Delpy, French and not yet much known in America; and Hawke, a rising American star; and started shooting—but as a whole, they represent a powerful and unique portrait of contemporary love and life, this generation’s answer to Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series. In this era of sequels and stories broken into fragments to make more money (and not just trash like Twilight, but prestige projects like The Hobbit), how often do any of us walk out of a movie theater thinking, please, don’t stop? Truffaut began the adventures of Antoine with The 400 Blows and ended it 20 years later with a fifth and final film about his alter-ego, Love on the Run. Can we hope for at least another pair of Linklater-Delpy-Hawke collaborations?  If I were only allowed to see one movie this year, I’d want it to be Before Midnight. If I were only allowed two trips to a theater this year, I’d see it twice.

Jesse and Celine are, at least physically, once again in a place most of us would like to be. It is summer and they are on extended holiday on a lovely Greek island. At 41, they have beautiful seven-year old twin daughters, who seem to have stumbled sleepily out of a Julia Margaret Cameron photograph. They are reasonably well off.  They live in Paris, Celine working in environmental policy and Jesse still a writer. He wrote a sequel to This Time, his novel based on their Viennese encounter, called That Time, which paid for their apartment. He’s written a third, more ambitious but less successful book, and in a long scene set on a sunny terrace, enthusiastically lays out the plot of his next project to their host Patrick (Walter Lassally), who serves as a regular patron to the arts, and some of the new friends they’ve made in Greece.

There are wounds though, many having to do with the complexity of that decision to miss the plane home to the States back in 2004. Jesse’s son, Henry, or Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is 14, and though he’s just spent a month with them in Greece (the film opens with Jesse saying an anxious, needy goodbye to him at the airport), it’s apparent that Jesse has never been able to reconcile his guilt over choosing a woman over his child. Henry’s bitter mother has made it hard for him to see the boy; Jesse muses about ways to be a regular part of Henry’s life. “He doesn’t even know how to throw a baseball,” Jesse tells Celine. “He leads with his elbow.” Her response makes it clear this is not the first time this has come up but more likely, the hundredth: “Jesse, I’m not moving to Chicago.”

In these early scenes Linklater, who wrote the screenplay with Delpy and Hawke (they wrote as a trio for Sunset as well and were Oscar-nominated for it) lays the groundwork for the explosive, ugly conversation to come. It’s about guilt and also fidelity and Celine’s resentment of the inequity between them in the arena of childcare, not just of their twins, but also Henry, who is more likely to confide in Celine than his own father. When she quotes a refrigerator poem to him—“Women explore for eternity in the vast garden of sacrifice”—she’s practically spitting in outrage that this feels like her lot. She no longer has time to think, let alone write the kind of songs that made her feel connected to herself (and to him, at the end of Sunset). These are real issues, then, ones that many in the audience will relate to.

(SEE: Where Before Sunrise ranks on Time’s list of romantic films)

Although Before Midnight features more intimate interaction with other characters—including a talky, philosophical lunch with Patrick and some Greek friends—there’s a neat if somewhat artificial construct built into the screenplay to put Jesse and Celine back into the kind of scenario that their fans expect: alone with each other, walking and talking. Their new friends Stefanos (Panos Koronis) and Ariadni (Athina Rachel Tsangari) have bought them a hotel room for the evening. It’s a ramble through rocky paths to get there and as they go, Before Midnight settles almost deceptively into the rhythm of the earlier movies.

We hang on voyeuristically, hoping for the sort of scene the earlier movies have tantalized us with but never given us, where Jesse and Celine undress each other and reveal themselves as lovers. But in this universe of complex characters, it can’t be that simple. The pressure to share pleasure is too fraught. The question as to whether Jesse and Celine will be together remains the same, but it is no longer a matter of the mere logistics that mark beginnings, but rather, the choices that mark diversions from a course.

When they watch a sunset together and Celine says, then whispers, “Still there” until the sun drops below the horizon and she pronounces it “gone,” what is she really speaking of? They thrive on their shared history but are also burdened by it. “That’s what fucks us up,” Ariadni said during that lunch. “Romance, the notion of a soulmate.” The earlier Before films have done much to perpetuate that notion, that belief that a soulmate is there to be found. Bravely and with penetrating intelligence, Before Midnight elevates instead the practical, a partnership: frayed by disappointment, worn by time, but for the very luckiest—which we sincerely and selfishly hope includes Jesse and Celine—durable for the long day’s journey into night.

(READ: Joel Stein’s Interview with the director and stars of Before Midnight)