The bitter-to-sweet ratio is a bit different this time around, as the third installment in Richard Linklater’s acclaimed series finds Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) living together, raising twins, pursuing careers and – as those details imply – struggling to maintain the ephemeral romance so wistfully captured in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.
It’s a drastic departure, really, in this and other ways. Before Midnight finds the family on vacation in Greece, where Jesse has been invited to be the summer guest of an aging writer. And so, in addition to the one-on-one conversations for which the series has been known, we also get a lengthy dinner-table scene, in which guests of different generations and experiences ruminate on love, gender, commitment and sex. Another change is that this time there is no plane to catch. Previously Celine and Jesse were working under a deadline, but here they have the rest of their lives spread out before them. An inevitable result is that the sense of intimacy and urgency that was so palpable in the earlier films is lessened here.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine anyone with a connection to this series not being engrossed by Before Midnight. (Does it serve any purpose for newcomers? That’s an entirely different conversation.) Delpy and Hawke – who have always been giving two halves of one wonderful performance – continue the synchronicity that has defined these movies, so that their conversations are as easy, sparkling and playful as ever. You feel as if you could watch them talk forever.
The Before films have progressed from capturing a moment in time to detailing a shared life’s journey.
This is still the case even though the tenor of their talk has changed. From their first scene together – a Kiarostami-type conversation sequence in a moving car – there is an element of caution to Celine and Jesse’s words. It isn’t the tentativeness of meeting someone new, which was felt in Before Sunrise, but that of a couple who knows that conversations can, at times, be the equivalent of stepping through a minefield. Jesse’s guilt over living in Paris, away from the son from his first marriage; Celine’s desire to pursue her career while also feeling pressure to care for their young daughters. These and other issues percolate beneath every word. When the pair heads to a hotel for what is supposed to be a romantic getaway, these concerns explode into an angry night of accusations, disappointment, cruelty and misunderstanding.
It’s worth remembering that Before Sunrise, the first film, opened with the image of a bickering couple. Watching them in horror on the train to Paris, Celine gets up to move a few rows away. She meets Jesse, who persuades her to get off the train with him in Vienna, and their fate is set. Did Linklater know, at that time, that Jesse and Celine would essentially become that couple some 18 years later? Did we?
It strikes me that these films are very much of the moment, creations of those who are living in their current lives what they’re depicting onscreen. Delpy and Hawke, whose ages are close to those of the characters they play, wrote the last two screenplays with Linklater. At the same time, each film has an undercurrent of wisdom to it (perhaps because Linklater has about 10 years on his stars). The Before films have always been simultaneously in the midst of the romantic frisson between these two and outside, observing them with an experienced omniscience.
All of which makes the ending a bit problematic. The balance between romanticism and realism feels off. After documenting an evening of acrimony, Before Midnight offers – vague spoiler here – a sequence of reconciliation. Some will read this as a brief truce rather than a full reunion, yet I detected a certain misplaced hopefulness in the picture’s final moments, something more akin to the risible Hollywood ending of This is 40 than the tentative ambiguity of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Those films left me wanting more in a tantalizing way, while here I felt something closer to dissatisfaction.
And yet I’m still pining for a fourth entry. A fictional companion piece to Michael Apted’s Seven Up! documentary series, which has been revisiting a group of Britons every seven years, Linklater’s Before films have progressed from capturing a moment in time to detailing a shared life’s journey. They’re rare movie birds, no matter if they’re bitter or sweet.