Review: Before Midnight
PLOT: Almost a decade after our last rendezvous with Jesse and Celine, we find them vacationing in Greece with their daughters. They talk about their past, their future and everything in between.
REVIEW: It has been nine years since we left Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Celine's apartment in Paris when we catch up with the couple in BEFORE MIDNIGHT, Richard Linklater's third (and hopefully not final) film focusing on the complex relationship between the American and Parisian. They are now firmly in the middle of a growing relationship and every bump in the road that entails. They still talk like young lovers sometimes, but mostly their conversation revolves around work, fond memories, their relatives and other fairly mundane stuff. Oh, and their children; they have two of them.
Point is, Linklater has wisely decided not to continue to romanticize the two, instead now documenting the natural evolution of a couple who has spent nine years together. If you recall from BEFORE SUNSET (and you should probably see the first two before embarking on this one, but it's not completely necessary - and more on that in a minute), Jesse and Celene were reunited nine years after spending a magical day together in Vienna. SUNSET admirably played out in real time (or something close to it) as we watched their fumbling reunion - rife with wistful conversations of what could have been and what might be - culminate in Jesse potentially missing his plane back to America and his wife and child so he could be with the woman who might indeed be his true love.
Well, turns out he did stay. Effectively abandoning his family, Jesse has made a life in Europe with Celine, even wrote the second of two books about his courtship of her. (She's not always thrilled about that.) Now he's struggling a bit with his work, and she's on the precipice of a new job she's uncertain of, but they're together and smiling and what we see at first is that, yes, these two belong together, even if the romantic sizzle of their earlier chapters has dissipated.
But the cracks begin to show; not over-dramatically, but in a strangely authentic way that Linklater captures as if he were a documentarian. Jesse is conflicted about his relationship with his son, now high-school age, and is flirting with the idea of moving back to the states, which Celine can't fathom. As they're wrapping up a vacation in Greece when we catch up with them, with Jesse's son flying back home to his mother (who predictably hates both Jesse and Celine), a friend of theirs has arranged for them to spend a night away from the kids in an elegant hotel, something romantic for the two. But their stay at the hotel is doomed to expose a myriad of problems that have been bubbling underneath the surface, and in a prolonged and intense encounter, the two unload their frustrations, fears and resentments so thoroughly that their relationship is threatened to crack apart at the seams irreparably.
What's fascinating and fun about BEFORE MIDNIGHT is how much we recognize these characters as soon as we're reunited with them. Both in their early 40s now, they're still the same people we remember: Jesse's boyish arrogance is still challenged by Celine's frankness, just as her idealism is frequently razzed by him. It is not necessary to have seen both BEFORE SUNSET and SUNRISE because Linklater and his two actors create such a complete portrait of a relationship that may have run its course that almost anyone watching it will be able to relate. But it's hard not to be further affected by the turmoil they're enduring if you recall their earlier, happier selves.
The movie is honest - about this relationship but all mature relationships - in a way that's uncanny and even unseen nowadays. How a normal conversation can veer into a tiff - and then a full-blown argument, and then back again - in the blink of an eye. How a romantic encounter can so easily be thwarted, when years ago that would have seemed so unthinkable. Perhaps because this is the third go-round for the trio that it just seems so effortless, but Hawke and Delpy are still able to create such a believable, beautiful rhythm when they get lost in an ever-growing conversation; their talks - most of them shot in long takes - never come across as forced, or "actors" playing house. Hawke and Delpy live these people, and we're privy to their most intimate moments.
If Linklater perfectly reinstates his act as fly on the wall, then Hawke and Delpy continue to be ideal subjects for his developing story of hope and heartache among two people. The actors have most likely never been better than they are here, giving performances of remarkable depth. Both are commendably vanity-free here; the camera unflinchingly captures the etches of time on their faces and it appears as though no true effort has been made to glamour them up. And they're funny; the duo's timing couldn't be more perfect, and even when the heat of their argument is at full blast, the two headstrong characters never miss a moment to viciously mock the other, resulting in barbs that can't help be giggled at even while you're cringing at the immediacy of their fight.
And the ending... I obviously won't spoil the ending, but once again Linklater has crafted something elegant and bittersweet - a cliffhanger of sorts that is fully keeping with the rest of the BEFORE films, yet certainly more resonant. It's a sincere wish of mine that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy continue to make these films - be it every nine years or whenever they please - because we're not likely to witness such a sublime exploration of this sort from anyone else.