I frankly loved Richard Linklater’s 1995 film, Before Sunrise, but I would lukewarm on the widely praised 2004 follow-up, Before Sunset. It was still delightfully hyper-verbal and hit the right notes of romantic cynicism, but the film was also a true sequel: too much of a carbon copy of the original, with characters that were older but hadn’t really developed any further. As unabashed art house fodder, it certainly wasn’t a crass attempt at franchise building, but it did have an air of artistic insignificance about it. The film played like an excuse for a few collegial cohorts to work together again rather than the passionate delivery of a story that simply needed to be told. Before Midnight, the third installment of the Jesse and Céline story, is a reversal. It’s not a repeat. It’s a progression, the two central characters in a very different place than they’ve been before, and, in following them there, Linklater effectively explores the way life slips furtively into its middle years.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are back as Jesse and Céline, respectively, and have once again collaborated with Linklater on the script. In the nine years since the prior film, the two characters have entered into a committed relationship to one another. They remain unmarried, but do have a family unit, complete with twin daughters. This is also the reminder of Jesse’s prior marriage, the one that ended in part because of his reunion with Céline, in the form of his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who occasionally visits the family in Europe. Linklater wisely begins the film with a reminder that the hip romanticism of the prior film exacted a cost, as Jesse accompanies Hank to the airport to send him home to his mother in Chicago. The continuing ire of Jesse’s ex-wife is explicitly noted many times, but the consequences are clear in the somewhat needy interactions Jesse has with his son. The scene is fraught with damaged history, even as it is warm, knowing and witty. It’s immediately clear that there is a different story to be told.
The family is nearing the end of a much-needed vacation in Greece, spent at the home of a novelist (played by Oscar-winning Zorba the Greek) cinematographer Walter Lassally) who admires the books Jesse has written, at least two of them inspired by his interrupted courtship with Céline. This setting provides ample space for the kind of conversational jousting favored by Linklater, as characters sit around the dinner table trading philosophies on the nature of relationships, love and life itself. While these scenes can sometimes seem a diversion from the real pleasure of the film–the long stretches when Jesse and Céline talk together, with no one else intruding–they help to set up the powerful, fiercely grueling second half of the film, as the strain of the couple’s relationship escalates into a full-on argument, hidden distrust and festering resentments brought out into the harsh light of the lightning crash conflict.
Beyond merely demonstrating that things get harder when people move on from the loveliness of being mutually smitten, Before Midnight cracks open how plainly difficult it for anyone to turn themselves over fully to another. The extended argument has the unpleasant smack of reality, typified by two people who know exactly how to harm the other with words, which slights and small betrayals can be unearthed for maximum impact at exactly the right time. The screenplay understands the ebb and flow of a couple’s argument, including the way that tenderness and animosity can coexist with only the slightest membrane between them. Hawke and Delpy tear into this extended scene with laudable vigor, although it’s worth noting that Delpy, as has been the case across all three films, gives the stronger performance of the two, often finding novel ways to express what could otherwise be familiar sentiments. What makes the exchanges especially effective is the simple but often elusive quality of making certain that both sides of the argument have equal validity, are always coming from an understandable place.
The film is neither wholly hopeful nor pessimistic, ending on a note that struck me as sweetly melancholy (and full credit to whichever of the screenwriting trio came up with a last line that can stand up admirably to the absolutely perfect final words of Before Sunset). Like all that preceded it, the closing scene defies easy categorization because it is locked firmly in what is real, rather than what may be dramatically satisfying. If that final scene involves a callback that could be interpreted as slightly problematic, given that it originated from a place of anxiety and it’s being turned around to become something meant as a stab at healing, even that can be seen (generously, perhaps) as further evidence of the precariousness of lives intertwined, the occasionally uncertainty as to how to proceed in a manner that will allow the ship to hold.