Richard Linklater‘s 1995 film Before Sunrise is a love story. His 2004 follow-up, Before Sunset, is a life story. His latest film, Before Midnight, is a lived-in love story. The relationship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) resumes at its most complicated point where we see what happens nine years after true love. Once again, Linklater and his co-writers (also Hawke and Delpy) have delivered an honest and thoughtful romance that truly taps into the maturity of its lead characters. Although the story falters when the focus pulls back from its protagonists, Before Midnight firmly establishes the trilogy as a unique and remarkable accomplishment that manages to always find the humor, tragedy, frustration, and desire in a brutally honest love story.
Nine years after the ending of Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine are now married with twin daughters. Jesse and Celine have just spent the summer in Greece with Hank (Jesse’s son from his previous marriage), and the film opens with Hank flying back home to America. Jesse feels wracked with guilt because he can’t spend more time with Hank, Celine fears Jesse will resent her for not moving to America so he can be with his son, but the couple still loves each other. But the dreamy, dewy-eyed, star-crossed love is gone. In its place is a more complicated relationship that has started to fray. As the day progresses, Jesse and Celine discuss the nature of romantic relationships with other couples, walk around Greece, look back at their past, dream of what their future holds, and begin to pull at the strings that could unravel their life together.
Before Midnight is a moving and unsettling look at the fragility and complications of true love, and what “true love” really means assuming it even exists. The first two movies look at communication in missed connections, and the latest film examines a connection and missed communication. Modern technology like iPhones and Skype almost mock the couple as there are more ways to communicate, but these characters now have difficulty talking about their feelings. All three films live and breathe in Celine and Jesse’s conversations, but now their talks carry nine years of history. Who were they when they met? Who are they now? Is this the life they dreamed of, or are they still looking ahead to a better future where somehow things are easier? At one point, a character notes how a level of passion “used to come so naturally.” Celine and Jesse in 1994 and 2003 (when Before Sunrise and Before Sunset take place, respectively) have the the immediacy and the freedom to tap into that passion. Celine and Jesse’s concerns in the present day lack that beautiful simplicity, but they offer a relationship that’s far deeper and profound. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy don’t want to simply hand us “This couple is falling apart.” That’s too easy, and more importantly, it’s a glib, inaccurate description of Celine and Jesse’s struggle.
We absolutely feel the strain of their relationship, and we couldn’t feel that without the 18 years of history this trilogy has established. These films couldn’t work if they were placed closer together. We need to see the history, to be clued into the turning points in the characters’ lives, and there’s no amount of makeup that can make us feel like Celine and Jesse have reached completely new places in their lives. Physical time has to pass for both the stories and the audience, and the resulting authenticity gives the trilogy its magic. It makes the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight unlike anything in cinema history.
But the passing of real time is only part of why these movies work. The other part is Hawke and Delpy. For anyone who wants to a point to two actors and say, “There. That’s what chemistry looks like,” they only need to break out any movie in the Before trilogy. The connection between these two characters has never been in doubt since the moment Celine first sat across from Jesse on the train to Vienna in Before Sunrise. Before Midnight pushes the actors through their characters’ hardest time, but we never want to leave Jesse and Celine. The film’s weakest moment is when we see them at the guest house in Greece. They’re surrounded by other couples, and the lunch conversation they have has none of the intimacy that’s been the foundation of this trilogy. Instead, the characters mostly speak in declarative statements about the nature of relationships, and while that neatly lays out the subtext and provides some foreshadowing, we already get that from watching Celine and Jesse independent of other couples. Our lead characters give us everything we need from these movies and with the exception of Jesse watching his son leave at the airport, everything outside these characters is a distraction.
Every moment with the couple feels true but never overbearing. Jesse and Celine have never been symbols for all relationships; their love story stands on its own, and becomes fully fleshed out through the strength of the filmmaking and performances. These characters have never been blank slates you project your own experiences onto. These are real people and even though we only see them for three days across 18 years, we feel like we’ve known them forever. I’m not 41-years-old who’s been married for nine years with twin daughters. It doesn’t matter because Hawke and Delpy find the universal emotions in their characters’ relationship. They show how you can have a playful back-and-forth with your loved one in the afternoon and go for the jugular in the evening. As angry, hurtful, and upset as these characters become, they never lose a sense of humor that has probably been one of their strongest bonds throughout the marriage.
The power of the relationship comes not only from the script and performances, but from Linklater’s direction, which makes the world revolve around Celine and Jesse. Before Sunset put us in real-time where we saw two characters who wanted to keep their reunion going for as long as possible, so they continued to walk and talk through the streets of Paris. Before Midnight develops the thoughtful cinematography even further by having Jesse and Celine’s first extended conversation come not from a peaceful walk through a scenic European city, but from driving in a car with their daughters sleeping in the backseat. The relationship is now lived-in, goes on its own momentum, and lacks the simple grace of a camera dancing around two people walking through a city. The camera now sits on a dashboard and simply presents the married couple. The long tracking shots do reappear as Celine and Jesse take a stroll through a small Greek town, and eventually we end up in a claustrophobic hotel room where the knives come out.
I’m not going to pretend I can personally connect to the situation presented in Before Midnight. What makes the film, and this trilogy, so utterly fantastic is that I don’t have to. Each of these movies fills me with hope and dread when it comes to the nature of love. Before Midnight is the one that instills the most apprehension because it shows what happens when you add nine years to true love. The filmmakers aren’t trying to scare the audience. They’re simply doing what they’ve always done: stay true to the characters and their emotions. Once again, we’re absolutely absorbed with Celine and Jesse’s rich and difficult relationship. Once again, we anxiously wonder what their next day will hold.
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