With his amorous walk-and-talk films Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), writer-director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) created something unique. On the surface the films are a loose mixture of Louis Malle’s dialogue-driven 1981 drama My Dinner with Andre and Michael Apted’s sequential documentary series Up! (Seven Up!, 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up and so on). Underneath that they remain persuasive poetic tributes to the power of the human voice. It’s 2013 now, and Linklater is back with Before Midnight, checking on the lives of chatty, would-be lovers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in what appears to be a regular 9-year interval.
The couple first met for one fleeting night in Vienna, exchanging conversations about hopes and dreams. They ran into each other again nearly a decade later in Paris, chatting for a day about missed opportunities and life choices. With minimal physical contact and barely a hint of sex, two people fell passionately in love using nothing more than their words. It’s now nearly 20 years since the couple first crossed paths. This time around, Jesse and Celine are firmly together. Several years ago, the couple gave birth to a lovely pair of twin girls, and the entire family is now summering on the picturesque coast of Greece. It seems like everything is finally perfect for our long-simmering couple.
As in previous outings, everything in the film unfolds over the course of several long, soul-searching conversations. Jesse and Celine are in their 40s now. Conversations no longer revolve around youthful hopes and dreams. They revolve around jobs and child care and other mundane tasks. Mind you, these are still two very smart, literate people who have surrounded themselves with the same. (A lengthy dinner conversation with friends expands the topics somewhat and breaks the two-character formula a bit.) But it’s still all about what we say to each other, how we say it and what we leave unsaid.
The Before films aren’t for everyone. For the patient audience, however, there is an unbridled pleasure in simply listening to two intelligent people talk. If you haven’t seen the previous films, Before Midnight won’t hold nearly as much interest or import. The joy here is in hearing how two increasingly familiar people have both changed and stayed the same over the years. Rarely, if ever, has a filmmaker spent so much time and meticulous effort building two characters. At this point, viewers have become heavily invested in the lives of Jesse and Celine. We may be no more than voyeuristic observers, but we can’t help but feel that a little bit of our own optimism about life and love is tied in with their happy union.
The Before films aren’t about plot. The only engine driving the narrative here is the fact that Jesse is expressing an interest in moving back to Chicago to be with his estranged son, while Celine wants to concentrate on a new job opportunity in Paris. This conflict is merely the launching point for the two to continue discussing their relationship in depth. What’s interesting is that it’s not only the audience who knows the long history of this couple. Many people in this fictional world know about Jesse and Celine’s condensed love affair, since bohemian writer Jesse chronicled their story in a pair of widely read autobiographical novels. They have become, whether they like it or not, symbols of romantic destiny.
Before Midnight isn’t quite the freewheeling, uncharted love story that the first two films are. This chapter’s a bit darker and more cynical. Given the ages and positions of the characters now, it’s only natural. Love isn’t all walks along the Seine, people. For a relationship to endure, it’s got to survive the wear and tear of everyday life. That is not to say that Before Midnight lacks romance or humor or surprise. The setting is still gorgeous, and the feelings are still passionate. But there’s a vast gulf between college kids talking about what it would be like to be in love and middle-aged people discussing what it’s like to live together, raise kids and have careers. If you’ve lived any portion of your life between the ages of 20 and 40, you’ll be able to empathize.
Setting the film in (more or less) real time and using a great deal of tightly improvised dialogue, Linklater and his two stars have created an incredibly intimate, finely nuanced and brutally honest glimpse into the lives of these two characters. If you’ve kept up with the previous films, Before Midnight is essential viewing. It’s bittersweet, beautiful and occasionally hits uncomfortably close to home. Here’s hoping Linklater allows us to check in with Jesse and Celine in another nine years.
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