Before Midnight is a
welcome reunion between the director Richard Linklater and the actors Ethan
Hawke and Julie Delpy. In 1995,
this team created the characters Jesse and Celine for the film Before
Sunrise. Written by Linklater and Kim Krizan, Sunrise is a charming and insightful picture in which an American
man and a French woman, both in their twenties, meet on a train and then spend a
night together in Vienna, walking, talking, and falling in love. At the time
the film was released, I referred to it as a Gen-X Roman Holiday, which I intended as high praise; both the
characters and the film were awkward and self-conscious, but I was charmed by them. But when
Linklater and his actors (and, now, his co-writers as well) produced a sequel, Before
Sunset, I felt a strong dislike for the
maladjusted, deceitful, and obnoxious thirty-somethings that Jesse and Celine
had become in the nine years since the first movie. I'm not sure why I had such a viscerally negative reaction
to the movie; it was certainly unpleasant to be immersed in a ninety-minute
real-time conversation between two people so grating. But more likely I was put off because the second film
violated my hopeless-Hollywood-romantic belief that when two people share a
brief encounter as sublime as Jesse and Celine's, they are magically transformed
into enlightened individuals, free from petty neuroses and self-consciousness. So maybe that's on me.
In Before Midnight, we rejoin the characters in their forties, and they've aged well: still prickly and insecure, but more perceptive and beguiling than we've ever seen them. Not only did Before Midnight make me want to give Before Sunset another chance, but it also got me hoping that Linklater and his collaborators will follow Jesse and Celine into their nineties, releasing a new film about them each decade. It may be because I'm the same age as these two that I look forward to their return every nine years; I find it far more fascinating to check in with these two fictional characters at various stages of life than, say, the real-life subjects of Michael Apted’s 7-Up series. Linklater doesn't strive for any from of docudrama realism in these carefully scripted and most certainly not improvised movies. Instead, his characters inhabit heightened realities in which the strain of an impending train departure, the pre-arranged schedule of a book-tour, or the end of a vacation causes compressed and intensely emotional exchanges to erupt. In Midnight, Jesse and Celine have spent the summer on a picturesque Grecian peninsula with friends and family. Tension is always simmering between the couple but conflict isn’t initiated until the clock starts running out on their trip. The convention of limited time enables the heated exchanges to come across as authentic rather than forced.
At their core, these films are about the differences between men and women. That dynamic was perfectly realized in Before Sunrise but part of what has kept me from fully embracing these last two installments is that I don’t think the female perspective is as well represented as the male. Hawke’s Jesse is passive-aggressive and not entirely honest, but, as we watch him and Celine argue, he seems balanced and centered in a way that she doesn't, and although some of her points really hit home, she's so inconsistent that it is hard not to side with Jesse when he accuses her of being irrational. Perhaps this is a result of there being two male writers and only one female, or perhaps it is Delpy’s confusing brand of modern European feminism that gets in my way. In Before Sunset and Before Midnight, both of which Delpy co-wrote, she acts less like the Celine that Linklater and Kim Krizan created in the original Before Sunset and more like the erratic and unpredictable characters in Delpy's own self-directed pictures, 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York. Or maybe Jesse's perspective always makes more sense to me for the sole reason that, like him, I am a 42-year-old American male with an inflated opinion of his own emotional intelligence. Who knows? Debates like this are part of the joy of these movies.
While the exchanges between Jesse and Celine don't feel phony, you'd never mistake them for actual conversations between two lovers who have spent the last decade together. Instead, they sound more like conversations written by people who come together every nine years to make a movie. That's not necessarily a bad thing since Linklater is not going for some kind of Cassavetes-esque neo-realism with these pictures; he wants to get under the hood and explore the intellectual mechanics of how men and women relate to each other in our modern era. However, because the dialogue and situations are so heightened in these pictures, the final scene of this movie feels too abrupt to be satisfying, as if the filmmakers are pausing their story rather than finishing it. A film as rich as Before Midnight requires a more cinematic conclusion in order to properly close the door on its characters, whether it's forever or just until the next movie.
despite these flaws, it is not hard to fall under Before Midnight's spell.
Eavesdropping on Celine and Jessie’s conversations every nine years is a
privilege, their extended talks with their friends in the movie's excellent
middle section are equally engrossing, and the breathtaking Grecian scenery is
even more immersive than the locations of the previous pictures. In one of
their many walk-and-talk sequences, the characters invoke Rossellini’s Journey
to Italy, and the reference is apt as Jesse and Celine struggle with issues not
dissimilar to those Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders confronted. What’s
different in our more verbal and emotionally exploratory era, in which men and
women are more prone to self-disclosure and cerebral relationship analysis than
to existential communing with sacred places and ancient cultures, is that this
movie-couple must find the answers to their emotional and spiritual questions
within each other. This makes Before
Midnight a timely film on a timeless subject: it’s specific to the experiences of
its particular characters while speaking to the universal experience of all
human relationships. It is a fine
specimen of the adult romantic drama - an important genre that has almost
entirely disappeared from the cinema.