Review: Before Midnight
Almost. When director Richard Linklater announced last fall that he has shot Before Midnight I didn't have time to be apprehensive. I was too quickly swept up in a wave of excitement. It has been nine years since we last sat down with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) for a long, rambling, revelatory conversation, and the chance to see where the years had taken them was too enticing for me to be worried. Plus, Before Sunset was the rare sequel to surpass the original in my mind, so I had faith that this trio (Hawke and Delpy co-wrote both Sunset and Midnight with Linklater, and were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for the former film) would do something interesting in their third outing.
They did more than that, though, creating another essential film, and what may just be the best yet in the ongoing document of the lives, and love, of Jesse and Celine. Throughout most of the film, even in its murkier and more emotional moments, it was hard to keep a smile off my face, so happy was I to be back in the company of two of cinema's most well-realized characters, and watching the lived-in performances that make this series such an enduring pleasure. For fans of the previous films, Before Midnight is less a startlingly insightful film about love in your '40s (though it is certainly that) and more the chance to catch up with old friends you haven't seen in a while. There's a warmth, an intimacy, to the film that is more than just that between the characters--it engages the audience in it as well, to the point where you feel as if you, too, are spending a final day in Greece before returning to your life, and just happy to have such wonderful company along the way.
For those of you who have yet to see the film, and (understandably) want to know as little as possible about the status of Jesse and Celine before seeing it, here is the point to jump off. Spoilers will follow. The film opens with Jesse dropping his son Hank (the one he had with his wife in Before Sunset) off at the airport, and moves through a phenomenal tracking shot to the revelation that Jesse and Celine have spent the last nine years together, unmarried, but with twin girls to call their own, living first in New York and then in Paris. Jesse is dropping his son off for a flight back to Chicago, where he lives most of the year with his mother, and it is clear from these opening moments that the distance weighs heavily on Jesse. It is also clear, as he brings this up to Celine, that this is a conversation the couple has had many times before, a bedrock tension in their relationship that is resurfacing in the wake of Hank's departure. This, and other tensions, continue to resurface as the pair drive back to the villa they are staying at, dine with their host and his family, and are sent off on a romantic evening together at a hotel.
Hawke and Delpy are both revelations in their roles. The term "lived-in" that I threw out earlier couldn't be more accurate; while both are capable performers elsewhere, they inhabit the roles of Jesse and Celine like second skins, to the point where it barely feels like a performance. They write these characters, they live with them, and the discourse between performance and reality is so fluid and tenuous, it is a wondrous thing to behold. Great, as well, is the subtle pleasure of watching them shift over the decades. I re-watched Sunrise and Sunset before seeing this installment, and its amazing to see how the duo has changed. Jesse was the cynic back in the day, but he has softened over time into an incurable romantic who thinks the right line, or the perfect game, can soothe over any problems. Celine, meanwhile, has continued to lose pieces of her idealism, becoming more pragmatic, and it soon becomes clear that this is partly by necessity. Jesse is the carefree lover, which is great in small doses, but has left Celine to become the one who takes care of things while her lover is having "inspirations" and writing his next book. This isn't the next chapter in a fairytale, folks. This is another installment in a love story that is beautiful in large part because it feels real. These two have lived together for nine years, and the film does not paper over the problems they have. If anything, it makes it achingly clear that "happily ever after" is harder than it looks.
The film is as talky as its predecessors (in fact, all three films are basically just ongoing conversations), but it complicates things considerably, both structurally and emotionally. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine were the only people in the world, and the only other characters in the film were people who seemed to exist only to make their perfect night more romantic (a street poet, a fortune teller, and a surprisingly generous bartender all pop up briefly, but just to add romantic color to their encounter). In Before Sunset the only other characters exist to remind the two how brief their time together will be (a bookstore owner rushing Jesse to the airport and the driver who is to deliver him there). Here, there is an elongated sequence set at the villa of a famous author that actually introduces other characters who get the chance to become more than just color to the central relationship. Sure, its pretty clear they are mostly in conversation with three couples who represent the past, the present, and the future for them, but each relationship has enough color to feel authentic, and watching their dialogue expand for a time is invigorating.
As the structure has been complicated with more characters, so the emotions are complicated with the weight of time. It takes the film a while to get Jesse and Celine truly alone (early on, their kids are asleep in the back seat, and later they are at the aforementioned dinner), but once it does, their playful banter takes on an increasingly antagonistic tone, until a long, brutal sequence in a hotel room that resembles the similar apartment sequence in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, as the two, supposed to be having a romantic evening, can't seem to let their troubles go, needling each other until the conflict escalates to the point where it becomes unclear whether a permanent line has been crossed.
Before Midnight is quite possibly the greatest film in the series, and reinforces the Before films as one of the great cinematic trilogies. Rather than repeating what's come before, Midnight builds on its predecessors, and seems to be in conversation with them as well. The characters misremember things we can more easily recall (having the luxury of re-watching what they have simply lived through), their views shift over time, and their love changes in the process, from a spontaneous flirtation to the sort of thing that requires constant work and re-dedication. They have grown together, and before our eyes their relationships evolves as well. The film wavers between imagining nostalgia as a buoy in rough waters and as an anchor keeping things in place than might should drift apart. Yet at its core, this is a story of two people in the rough middle years of a relationship, who love each other for their flaws, recognizing in their partner the person they fell in love with, and seeing (or hoping they see) a person they could still be with as the decades continue. Where Sunset ended with a beautiful ellipsis that could have functioned as an ending, Midnight feels like it is definitively not the end of this story. Where we will find Jesse and Celine in nine years is far from certain. All we can know for sure is that they will change, as will we, and that when next we get together for a long conversation, we will be different people than before. And maybe, just maybe, we'll all be better.
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