Before Midnight doesn’t go where you think it will nor does it end quite the way you might imagine, but the highs and lows of this one memorable night evoke the disquiet and soberness that comes with becoming an adult.
Before Midnight. Directed by Richard Linklater. At cinemas throughout New England.
By Tim Jackson.
Before Midnight is the third of a trilogy of films directed by Richard Linklater and co-written with his co-stars French actress Julie Delpy, as Celine, and Ethan Hawke, as an American author named Jesse. The film does a good job of revisiting the doings from the earlier films and stands on its own as well but should you care to experience the first two movies in the series without spoilers, you may want to skip the following recap.
Eighteen years ago their story began in Before Sunrise when the two characters met on a train traveling through Europe. The chemistry between them was easy and immediate. Together they wandered the streets of Vienna until Jesse had to take a flight home in the morning. But they promised one another that they would re-convene at an agreed time and place. It was a beautiful narrative of serendipitous romance. But life got in the way, and the reunion never happened.
Nine years later in Before Sunset we find Jesse at a bookstore in Paris where he is signing his new novel based on that romantic encounter. Celine unexpectedly shows up, and the two wander through Paris reminiscing about life and their years in between meetings. This is an even better and more mature movie than the first, heartbreaking in its ability to conjure up the idealism of youth and the exhilaration of a first romance that inevitably gives way to harder realities. The film ends on an unresolved note. We know that Jesse is not happily married, but nonetheless he is resigned to his new life. The ease and brilliance of their winding conversations holds every indication that these two are meant for each other, but we are left to assume that it’s just not possible. But “Such is Life.” It is a heartbreaking ending.
Before Midnight begins nine years later, and Jesse and Celine are married with two beautiful twin girls. Jesse left his wife, an alcoholic whom we never see. He has been a loving, if somewhat of absent father, a detail that is quickly established in the first scene at an airport in Greece as Jesse sends his son back to America. The film does a wonderful job of providing back story about their married life since we last saw Jesse and Celine waxing romantic in Paris. Linklater continues his method of long takes in order to establish natural conversational rhythms and behaviors while, in fact, the script is meticulously written and rehearsed and performed with absolutely no improvisation.
Celine arrives and the drive from the airport establishes much about their relationship. With only one cutaway, and with their twin daughters sleeping in the back seat, they engage in a long conversation that evokes the details of their life together and the current state of the relationship. They arrive at a writer’s retreat on the Mediterranean, which provides a larger social context that is missing in the earlier films. In a wonderful dinner scene, a gregarious group of friends and artists, clearly representing different generational perspectives, engage in energetic conversations about love and memory, aging and death, as well as discussions of the transient nature of existence and the meaning of the past. These colorful tales of love and loss, festooned with lively hypotheses and scenarios about the future of mankind and technology, put the relationship of Celine and Jesse (and the movie itself) into a larger philosophical design. Ideas of transience, of the thin line between fact and fancy, and of what constitutes being truly present as a human being, raises complex questions of personal commitment, obligation, ambition, and accomplishment.
When the group offers to look after the couples’ twin girls and provide them a hotel room for the weekend, Celine and Jesse finally have the opportunity for a romantic evening alone. Walking to the hotel, their conversation moves from trivial questions and game playing (“what would you change about me”) to more troubling issues, including insecurities about aging and the staying power of romantic love. Back at the hotel, the stresses and difficulties of marriage threaten to cut short their intimate evening. As in the last two films, the dialogue proffers speculations and truths about life and love that will resonate with everyone, at any stage of life. At age 41, Jesse is guilty about how he has dealt with shared custody of his son; Celine is frustrated balancing the roles of wife, mother, and job. He finds her too emotional; she sees him as vain and privileged. As the recriminations mount, layers of tangled history and festering disappointments are uncovered. “Can we be friends for two seconds, so we can talk?” he pleads.
The acting is brilliantly naturalistic and the writing witty and skillfully written. Before Midnight doesn’t go where you think it will nor does it end quite the way you might imagine, but the highs and lows of this one memorable night evoke the disquiet and soberness that comes with becoming an adult. As in Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maude’s and Louis’s Malles’s My Dinner with Andre, conversation becomes the means to explore different ideas and reflections about life, love, art, and the challenges of the passage of time. As one character puts it, “This is life—we are just passing through.”