There’s something extremely satisfying about watching Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) growing older together. From the full-blown romantic flush of their first meeting in 1995’s Before Sunrise, through the more pragmatic (but beautifully balanced) 2004 reunion Before Sunset, and now with Before Midnight, their lives reflect the passing of time in our own. How much they’ve changed – and how much they’ve remained the same – can’t help but make the viewer reflect on their own changes in that time. Dipping in and out of these people’s lives, probably cinema’s most believable pairing, continues to feel like a treat, albeit something of a voyeuristic one.
So where are we now? Following Vienna and Paris, we find the pair holidaying in Greece. However, Before Midnight begins with something of a cheeky southpaw as Jesse drops off his teenage son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) at the airport, leaving Celine literally out of the picture. It’s a nice little tease. So where are they now? The audience is asked to guess for a few minutes. But it’s okay, Celine is parked outside, with twin daughters. The best behaved twin daughters in film history, no less.
The opening sequence between father and son eases us back into the same breezy Euro-holiday tone director Richard Linklater adopted with the first two films – and is itself a little treasure – before we’re thrown happily into business as usual with an extended car ride with the sleeping twins in the back. Jesse and Celine chat, tell stories and spar, and it’s like we’ve never been away. It’s good to know that some things never change… or do they?
In truth, Before Midnight is a little more than business as usual, though we do get plenty of the usual. Anyone sick of listening to these two walk and talk (and really, who are you people?) will no doubt roll their eyes at more of the same, despite how beautifully crafted the rambling conversations are. But, happily, this movie mixes things up a little bit with two notable deviations from our previous encounters. 1) a lengthy dinner scene in which we get to see Jesse and Celine interact with others, and 2) some serious emotional drama in the final half hour as dirty laundry is given a thorough airing. Could this actually be the end for Jesse and Celine?
After the comfort food of the two movies so far, it initially leaves a bitter taste in the mouth – no one watches a Before… movie for emotional anguish – but what’s surprising is how quickly compelling the flavours are. Jesse and Celine have been allowed to develop for over two decades now. Working together, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have decided to test the strength of that relationship. It’s a little nervy to watch. “This better have a happy ending,” the viewer feels moved to plea.
Before that, however, there’s plenty of easy-viewing to appease those looking for more of the same. A long walk from a country villa to a rustic village allows plenty of joyful back and forth between the two leads, thoroughly comfortable in roles that seem so natural as to be merely extensions of self. That pragmatism that was breaking through in Before Sunset has grown as Jesse and Celine push into their forties. They’re older, wiser, starting to grey and wrinkle. But they’re still caught up in the fleeting panic of being alive. It’s as indulgent as it is romantic.
The aforementioned dinner scene is a real treat too. Playful but with some serious topics under discussion. Before Midnight acknowledges the changing times – how sci-fi the present feels – by asking just what is the future for romantic love? Is it all virtual? Hasn’t it always been? As with Linklater’s rotoscoped daydream Waking Life, you could view it all as just another excuse to run off at the mouth, but really, this talk is so superbly realised as to make complaining seem like the work of a spoil-sport. I, for one, am not complaining in the least. Keep talking, I say.
Nevertheless, Before Midnight is at its strongest when Hawke and Delpy are left by themselves, and as the sun goes down, so the gloves come off. This film feels spikier than the previous two. All that Mediterranean sightseeing at the top of the picture was just a masquerade, lulling you into a false sense of security. By moonlight there’s jeopardy (albeit of the romantic kind, naturally), nudity, Celine even drops a C-bomb. What becomes scarily apparent is that the longer two people know each other, the better they know how to wound one another.
Structurally, it’s rather clever also. An off-hand remark in the first ten minutes of the movie eventually threatens to consume the whole film, the way that arguments spiral out of control.
…but if I’m making this all sound a bit, well, dramatic, then rest easy. Before Midnight is still a celebration of romance and Europe and talking. What was once about making a connection is now about sustaining one. The good news is that this addition to the series doesn’t feel forced or out of place, merely the next step in an unfolding journey. Probably the best installment so far, actually. Even better, it doesn’t feel remotely like the closing chapter in this saga. Just as Jesse used to spend his time wishing his life away, I’m hoping we’ll be seeing them again in another 9 years.
Here’s to 2022 then, and hopefully a better title than Before Midday.