Watching “Before Midnight”
The first two films in director Richard Linklater’s acclaimed “Before” series were joyous affairs, showing two people connecting and reconnecting and falling in love. The third film, “Before Midnight” is more like a splash of cold water in the face, detailing the fissures in their relationship and exploring the possibility of falling out of love.
Jesse and Celine might be fictional characters, but their concerns, fights and communication breakdowns are all too common among once-idealistic young adults now mired in the self-doubt and anxieties of middle age. In the new film “Before Midnight,” their talks are reminiscent of some of the conversations I’ve had with friends in recent years. “Marriage is a funny thing,” one of my friends told me a few months ago. I’m sure Jesse and Celine would agree.
We first encountered Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in 1995 in “Before Sunrise,” when they met on a train and spent the day and night wandering the streets of Vienna and talking. Jesse is American and Celine is French; they decide not to exchange contact information but to meet at the train station in six months time. In the 2004 sequel “Before Sunset,” Jesse and Celine reunite after about a decade; Jesse is now a successful writer, and Celine seeks him out at a book signing in Paris. They talk about their lives, and the film closes with Jesse sitting in a chair in Celine’s apartment, and Celine telling him, “Baby, you are going to miss that plane.” In “Before Midnight,” we learn that Jesse did miss his plane, divorced his wife and now lives in France with Celine and their twin daughters.
For fans of the “Before” films, part of their appeal stems from watching smart people who are attracted to each other both physically and intellectually. (Jesse and Celine are also seen, briefly, in Linklater’s animated film “Waking Life,” discussing philosophy in bed.) “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” were romantic, optimistic films that seemed to believe in the possibility of true love and soulmates. They emphasized intelligent conversation; Celine and Jesse seemed to have no shortage of ideas to discuss and interesting observations to share with each other. The films were also fairly chaste; Jesse and Celine did sleep together in “Before Sunrise” but the encounter occurred off-screen, while “Before Sunset” ended just as a sexual encounter was about to take place.
“Before Midnight” is the most explicit of the three films, but also the most frustrating (at least for the characters), because Jesse and Celine’s night of relaxation and romance is derailed by arguing and accusations. For the first time, we see what these highly verbal characters look like when they’re rendered speechless.
As its predecessors, “Before Midnight” is talky, but also beautifully made, with the action taking place over the course of a day. In the first section, Jesse drops his son from his first marriage off at the airport to return home to the U.S.; in the second, he and Celine talk quietly while driving to a friend’s house for dinner, their daughters asleep in the backseat; in the third, they enjoy a nice dinner with their friends, each in a different phase of love and life; in the fourth, they leave the kids with friends and travel to a fancy hotel for an evening sans children, and in the fifth, SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! they fight at their hotel room. The film’s bittersweet ending leaves us wondering whether Jesse and Celine’s relationship (they’ve never actually been married) can survive.
“Before Midnight” is superbly acted; at this point, Hawke and Delpy (who co-wrote the script) embody these characters, and know them from the inside out. Delpy is as beautiful as ever, but slightly heavier and more lined with worry, while Hawke’s youthful face has become more weathered and cynical. It’s a tribute to how much we care about these characters that we’re rooting for them to succeed.
The “Before” films are one of the more notable cinematic achievements in recent years, and they grow deeper and more thought-provoking with each installment, excellently conveying the passage of time and uncertainty of life. Over at Press Play, critic Seth Abramson argues that Linklater should let their relationship run its natural course, and that the two should separate. (Click here to read more.) I am not entirely convinced that Celeste and Jesse’s differences are irreconcilable, but their bitter battle at the end of the film exposes long-simmering resentments that cannot be dismissed or papered over, and a happy future is far from certain.
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