If you’re a fan of writer/director Richard Linklater’s previous movies (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), as I am, then a new Before movie is a cause of celebration. It feels like we’re checking in with old friends. It’s fascinating to take stock of these characters and their new points in their lives, now approaching middle age. This series is becoming the dramatic equivalent to the 7 Up documentary series that periodically checks up on its subjects every seven years in their lives (56 Up came out this year). Individually, the films are wonderful, but when taken as a whole, the series becomes something truly special, something indelible and sweeping and transporting. Before Midnight is a wonderful movie, brimming with heart as well as ache. It’s also one of the best movies you’ll see this year and another touchstone to the impressive legacy of the series.
In 1995, 23-year-olds Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met on a train and spent a magical day strolling through Vienna and essentially falling in love. In 2004, Jessie was touring Paris on his book tour, having turned the events of that Vienna night into a successful novel. Celine meets him and the two pal around, reconnecting, with Celine revealing how much that night meant to her as well. Now, in 2013, Jessie and Celine are together, though unmarried, and have twin seven-year-old daughters, Ella and Nina. They’ve been vacationing in Greece for a month while Jessie works on a new novel. Over the course of one long day, the couple will try and stir old passions and question whether they still share the same commitments.
We’re watching the evolution of two human beings, and your response will vary depending upon your own life’s stopping point at the time of viewing. I must say, as a man now in his early thirties, that I enjoyed Sunrise and Sunset even more, finding greater thematic resonance to the characters, their anxieties, and the concern about faking your way through the “adult world.” I imagine I will find these movies even more emotionally engaging as I continue to age and cross similar hurdles as the characters do. For fans of the series, we’ve already invested 20 years and four hours of screen time with these characters. There’s more at stake when they fight. Watching the other movies beforehand, which I heartily recommend for multiple reasons, also provides stirring points of contrast, the romanticism of youth, the exuberance of promise. What Before Midnight does, and does so exceptionally, is take the romance of the earlier films and put it to the test. There’s a lovely dinner scene with several couples, and you realize that each one is an analogue for Jessie and Celine: the teenagers, the middle-aged couple starting out, the older couple discussing the demise of their previous spouses. It’s hard not to contrast the different stops and the different realities of love by the age.
Fair warning, Before Midnight is the least romantic of all three movies (I want a new movie every 9 years or so until the last one is essentially Amour). The first movie was them connecting. The second movie was about them reconnecting. The third movie establishes that they’ve been together for nine years and have a pair of twin daughters. The focus of Midnight is the struggle of maintaining a long-term relationship, something rarely given such thoughtful, perceptive, and compassionate depth on screen. We’d all rather watch lovebirds make goo-goo eyes at one another while we swoon appropriately, but Midnight’s many battles, small and large, new and ongoing, explore a relationship reality that many should find alarmingly relatable. While the particulars may be different, you may be surprised at how similar these conflicts can be. Exclude stuff like vacationing in Greece, the cushy jobs, and look to the mounting difficulty to retain that spark, a reminder of why you fell in love long ago, with the responsibilities of parenting and work stretching you in different directions. Routine can quickly transform into malaise. Jessie has a teenage son from a previous relationship, and this pushes him into great remorse when the kid departs, making him feel inadequate as a parent, which leads him to suggest unlikely relocation scenarios. Celine, being something of a worst-case scenario creature, notes the moment, saying this is when couples start falling apart. She’s worried he’ll resent her for choosing against a cross-country move. However, as the movie progresses, you realize there are already enough long-simmering resentments between the couple. This is a hard movie to watch at times because Jessie and Celine both go for broke when they argue, and it can get ugly (he dismisses her feelings as “crazy”; she vents about his lack of virility). Ending on a moment of ambiguity, like the other films, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume you just watched a two-hour breakup movie. Their problems don’t really seem resolved but I guess we’ll see in nine years, won’t we? Hopefully the next one isn’t called Before Divorce.
The hallmark of the series, its sparkling conversation, is alive and well, with added maturity and reflection. When you get dialogue this good, this fluidly natural, this engaging, I could listen to them talk for days. In my mini-review for Before Sunset I compared it to listening to birds sing. The shots can last upwards of ten minutes as the camera just slowly walks ahead of Hawke and Delpy as they converse. In the first film we got a foot-tour of Vienna, the second Paris, and now Greece. The sights, while nice, are incidental because I was consumed with the dialogue, which spills so effortlessly from Hawke and Delpy, relishing playing these characters once more. Their give-and-take is often breathless, with nary a pause between them, and it can become overpowering for the uninitiated (lots of old ladies, I have found, dislike this movie, though when asked, none have seen the previous two). But there’s such added dramatic subtext now that we’ve jumped ahead in time. Rather than yearn for the characters to get together, now we’re assembling what we can of their history together and the durable conflicts. The exposition never feels forced, and each new bit provides another prism to view the character actions. You’re studying the characters, parsing their words, sizing up their honesty, and analyzing the various tests and dodges they dole out to one another. It’s a more active experience than you might expect for watching people talk a lot.
Hawke (The Purge) and Delpy (2 Days in New York) are so exquisitely natural with these characters and together and never better. They know these people inside out, and they should because both are credited yet again as co-screenwriters with Linklater. I’d expect another Oscar nomination in their future, much like Before Sunset. Delpy has a wonderful faux youthful voice she uses for hilarious disdain to narrate Jessie’s female fans. Both actors go a long way to flesh out their characters, provide degrees of new wisdom and worry while making us care about their problems. One character does not have the moral high ground, which makes their arguments all the more challenging to process. I don’t want to make it sound like Before Midnight is some twenty-first century Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? There are innumerous moments of humor and grace and compassion, but the louder ringing of the raging conflicts can swallow them up. I also found it intriguing that this is the first movie in the series with nudity from our couple. Granted, it would seem somewhat forward if it happened in Sunrise and Sunset considering the narrow timeframes. As presented in Midnight, it loses erotic context and becomes another indicator of the struggles of maintaining passion.
I want to reiterate that I really hope that Linklater and his stars continue to bless us with a new film every decade, checking back on the lives of Jessie and Celine. The next one, if we continue the nine-year tradition, will deal with them turning fifty, which seems like a grand opportunity for some existential ennui. Also, Jessie son from a previous marriage will be roughly the same age Jessie was in 1995’s Before Sunrise. That could provide another interesting perspective for dad. I’m just not ready to say goodbye to these characters yet. Much like the 7 Up documentary series, the movies provide a point to reflect on our own lives, how we’ve changed and grown, the setbacks and triumphs, surprises and sadness. Catching up with the series, I viewed the movies very differently than I did when I first watched them. The art remains the same but the frame changes; we change. The glorious aspect of Linklater’s series is that we get to chart that change, checking back with old friends we’ve grown with. The movie’s attention to character and the relatable problems of middle age and long-term relationships is rich, nuanced, and just about everything This is 40 should have been and wasn’t. Before Midnight may lack the idealistic romanticism of previous entries but it substitutes a soulfulness to a series that has always been mature beyond its years. Approaching half a life lived, the characters still have plenty of life in them, plenty of dreams worth pursuing, and plenty more hurdles to go. It has been an ongoing privilege to get to spend time with these two. I pray this is not the end but just another stop on what ends up being one of cinema’s definitive statements on love through the ages.
Nate’s Grade: A