“BEFORE MIDNIGHT” IS the completion (I think) of Richard Linklater’s charming, romantic trilogy that began eighteen years ago with “Before Sunrise”. The trilogy features by far the best of Ethan Hawke (as Jesse, an author) and Julie Delpy (as Celine, the French woman he falls in love with). You don’t need to have seen the other two ‘chapters’ in the story (“Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset”), but it helps.
To recap: in “Before Sunrise”, the young Jesse is on a trip to Europe when he meets the lovely Celine on a train from Budapest to Vienna. After a brief, almost real-time, wordy courtship, these two strangers fall in love and agree to meet again.
Well, the next time they meet again is in France (he never turned up), nine years later in “Before Sunset”. By now Jesse is an unhappily married father, and author of a book that recounted their chance, encounter. It is at a book reading that Celine re-engages him – her past, her youth, her brief encounter with love – and, as they stroll through the magic streets of Paris (many of the conversations are filmed in long, uninterrupted one-take sequences), the old flame is rekindled. We leave them as they fall in love all over again to the music of Nina Simone’s “Just in Time”.
“Before Sunset” is probably the best romantic movie of all time. It feels genuine and honest… manages to balance a joyful sense of the happiness of love with the reality that for this love to exist, it must destroy something – his own marriage and his relationship with his five year old son back in the US. We gain a real sense of these two characters: Jesse is the boyish, somewhat innocent American abroad; she’s the more obsessive, neurotic European.
“Before Midnight” re-introduces us to Jesse and Celine, now another nine years later. The movie begins in Messinia in Greece, with Jesse, bidding a fond farewell to his now grown (he’s fourteen) son. In the car waiting for him, is Celine and their twin daughters. The movie explores the idea of romance between these two older individuals. He looks pretty much the same – still the goofy, open American. She’s more mature, less gamine as she was when we first met her, more ‘ripe’ and beautifully rounded. She’s also more guarded, more wary, crazier than she was nine years ago.
As with the first two movies, there are long, one-take conversations as the two characters stroll amidst the beautiful Greek surroundings, expressing their hopes, fears and, inevitably, the contretemps that drive the narrative. In one scene, their love-making is interrupted by a phone call and as the moment sours from seduction to stress, her naked breasts almost morph from objects of desire to the indifferent nudity of any older ‘married’ couple.
And this is what the movie seeks to explore: faced with an almost cultural inevitability of separation and divorce (though Jesse Celine are unmarried parents), the distractions and demands of time and the responsibilities of parenthood, how does the energy and magnetism of love endure? For Jesse and Celine, it is his acceptance of everything about her – the good and the neurotic – and his on-going desire for her. And for her? I’m not sure. She’s ruthlessly unkind about him as a lover, and her independence of spirit seems less self-liberating, more threatened by his concerns as a father.
Which is either Linklater’s subtle suggestion than in the end the entropic pull toward separation will prevail, or one of many instances of sloppy writing.
For though it’s a pleasure to be reunited with Jesse and Celine and once again experience the almost eavesdropping intimacy of these two engagingly believable characters, “Before Midnight” confronts an essential problem that it doesn’t quite overcome. Whereas the first two movies existed pretty much in the present tense, this one now has a lot of back-story that it seeks to fill out via confessions, argument and sudden revelations. And these strike a series of false notes. You’re constantly struck with the feeling that there are things any couple would know about each other that this couple seemingly doesn’t.
There’s also a falseness to the resolution at the end, a sudden acquiescence by Celine to Jesse’s love that feels abrupt and dishonest.
The movie also introduces us to several new players: he’s staying at a writer’s retreat where they’re in the company of three other couples, but their interaction and – unexpectedly intimate – conversations disturb the felt life of the narrative and seem artificially inserted purely for thematic reasons. But, hey, maybe that’s how artists talk.
So, in the end, there’s much to delight in, in this final fling with Jesse and Celine – none to the least being the obvious chemistry between Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater that creates such a spark and such a sense of warm humanity. But sadly, it’s the weakest of the trilogy and a slightly disappointing note to end this marvelous series with.