When director Richard Linklater unexpectedly delivered a sequel to the 1995 romantic drama Before Sunrise, he revisited the same characters nearly ten years later, largely sticking to the established formula. In Before Sunset, released in 2004, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) had another decade of mileage on them, but the film offered a similar dance of philosophizing and courtship in a European capital. The novelty in seeing characters who were slightly more mature didn’t necessarily change the dynamic all that much. To me, at least some of the praise heaped on the second installment felt like a critical make-good for underestimating the wonderful original film. With the third effort, Before Midnight, and his actor collaborators (both of whom are also co-credited on the screenplay) pull off something very different. Jesse and Celine are recognizably the same people, but now the progression of years not only finds them together as a committed, unmarried couple who have twin daughters in their shared life. If they were older and a touch wiser in Before Sunset, they are now buffed down by the myriad of compromises, disappointments, and betrayals that life is all too eager to deliver. They can still expound with great verbal dexterity on the shifting nature of existence. Now these sorts of discussions are tinged with an underlying anger.
At least it’s only a tinge for awhile. Eventually, the anger blossoms into a full-blown rage, a sizable portion of the film devoted to Jesse and Celine engaged in the sort of savage argument that can only be waged by those who know each other well, one another’s psychological weaknesses cataloged and held in reserve for just such an occasion. Linklater stages the scene with a relentless, rigorous truth, mirroring the long takes that have been the hallmark of the series with an extended scene that includes every verbal body blow, every rending of the fabric of the relationship. This could just be an especially bad argument, or it could be the end of the relationship. As a piece of drama, the distinction doesn’t matter much. The rawness of the moment is there either way, and Hawke and Delpy play each scene–especially the crucial extended scene towards the end–with the trust and focus of performers who have developed something beyond a rapport, something that resembles the most intimate partnership that artists can forge. Before Midnight is astutely, piercingly, marvelously about relationships, not just the fictional one that drives the story, but also the creative one that gives the piece life.