Directed by: Richard Linklater.
Written by: Richard Linklater & Julie Delphy & Ethan Hawke based on characters created by Linklater & Kim Krizan.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Jesse), Julie Delpy (Celine), Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (Hank), Jennifer Prior (Ella), Charlotte Prior (Nina), Xenia Kalogeropoulou (Natalia), Walter Lassally (Patrick), Ariane Labed (Anna), Yiannis Papadopoulos (Achilleas), Athina Rachel Tsangari (Ariadni), Panos Koronis (Stefanos).
As much as I have loved Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), there was always something that kept me from thinking they were the masterpieces many other critics thought they were. The writing, the directing and the acting in the earlier two films was always superb, but to me, they were always a little too much like a fantasy romance. Hollywood is often criticized for making love stories about the beginning of a relationship – and stopping when the real hard part of a relationship – being together for years – just starts. The same could be said for the first two movies in this trilogy. But with Before Midnight, director Richard Linklater and his stars (and co-writers) Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy have finally made the masterwork of the trilogy – and in doing so retroactively make the previous films better. 1995’s Before Sunrise was about two highly educated, very intelligent people in their early 20s, who thought they had everything all figured out, but were too young and naïve to realize they didn’t have a clue. 2004’s Before Sunset is about the same two people coming together after 9 years apart, looking back at who they were in the past with nostalgia and romanticism – they weren’t really in love with each other at that point, because they didn’t really know each other. They were older and wiser to be sure, but still didn’t know what life with each other would be. Now with Before Midnight, taking place another 9 years in the future, but this time when the two characters have actually been together for that time, they are finally addressing what I always wanted the other two films to address – what it’s like to be in a long term relationship with another person. All the anger, jealously, petty bickering, right alongside the love and the deeper connection you feel when you really get to know someone else. Before Midnight is clearly the best of the series so far.
When we left Jesse and Celine last time, we were pretty sure Jesse was going to miss his plane home to his wife and son, and that would cause problems. Before Midnight therefore, opens in an airport, as Jesse is saying goodbye to his son Hank after he spent the summer in Greece with him, Celine and their twin daughters – Ella and Nina. This sets in motion the rest of the film, because Jesse regrets missing much of Hank’s life, and wants to be a bigger part of it now – even though, as Celine points out, he’s going off to high school, and logically needs him less than he has in the past few years. Still, he brings up the possibility of moving to Chicago in the film’s next scene – an extended driving scene with their daughters asleep in the backseat. The two don’t really get into an argument about it right then, but it’s simmering just below the surface – and will, by film’s end, be the catalyst from the argument that takes up pretty much the last third of the movie – although that argument is far more wide ranging than just that issue.
Before we get there though, Before Midnight has scenes that the previous films didn’t – scenes involving people other than Jesse and Celine. They are staying in a Greek villa with two other couples – one roughly their age, one much younger, still in the bloom of young love, and two widowers – one male, one female – and over a few scenes the men and women talk separately, and then altogether, about their relationships. Finally, we get the type of scene we expect from this series – a long walk through the beautiful Greek town they’re staying in, with just Jesse and Celine, ending with the fight in a hotel room where it’s clear this fairy tale love story isn’t as perfect as it seems.
It’s refreshing to see a film like Before Midnight – especially in the midst of blockbuster season, where even the good movies seem to move a mile a minute, and never slow down enough for any of their characters to say something meaningful. All there is to this series of movies is talk – but what wonderful talk it is. By this point, Hawke and Delphy know Jesse and Celine from the inside out, so you easily sink back into their rhythm with each other. This movie provides each of them with their best role in the series so far – and perhaps the best role of their career (Oscar nominations for their performances, as well as their screenplay, would not be undeserved). These characters have evolved at this point into real people in the middle of a real relationship that has hit a rough patch, without either of them really realizing it – or at least acknowledging it to the other person. The argument that takes up the last act in the film will feel painfully familiar to anyone who has ever been in a long term relationship – it cuts close to the bone as the two characters now know each other well enough to know precisely what buttons to push to anger the other person.
I bet that sympathies will be split among gender lines for this movie – with the men thinking that Jesse is “more right” than Celine (I certainly did), and women siding with Celine, and thinking Jesse is still too immature (they have a point). The truth is – both of these characters are right and wrong, sometimes at the same time. What Jesse says is not unreasonable, and at times, Celine does seem to be “the Mayor of Crazy town” as he calls her. But for the most part, Celine’s response is equally valid – as are the criticisms she has about Jesse. Sometimes when two people fight, neither is fully right and neither is fully wrong – and that is the case here.
Before Midnight is the most mature film is the series – and really one of the best films about a long term relationship I have ever seen. I cannot think of another film series that has done what these three films have – the closest I can come up is Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, followed 30 years later by Saraband – but even that isn’t quite accurate. The trio behind this film has hinted that this will be the last installment – which is perhaps a good thing. I’m not sure where they could go from here, but if in 9 years they decide to revisit Jesse and Celine – who would then be 50, with two teenage daughters – I’ll be there. This is one of the very best films of the year so far.