Two weeks ago I was listening to a podcast hosted by someone with access to advance critics’ screenings of the latest releases. The subject of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight came up on this podcast and I completely freaked out when the commentator just casually described the relationship of the film’s main characters. With any other film that wouldn’t be a spoiler, but Before Midnight is the third film in a long treasured film series that began twenty years ago with 1995’s Before Sunrise and continued in 2004’s Before Sunset. Both films looked at an evolving relationship between two characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy over the course of two long discussion filled nights and each film ended on a note of ambiguity about whether or not the characters would meet again after the events of each film. I was hoping that I’d be able to blindly enter Before Midnight and let Linklater reveal what became of the two lovers, but that wasn’t to be. Truth be told, that was probably an unrealistic expectation, even the film’s trailer gives away the film’s scenario and I was going to end up seeing that anyway. Furthermore, now that I sit down to write this review I realize that there really is no way to discuss this film without spoiling that basic premise, so this review will hold no greater standard in that regard than it would for any other film. Also expect full spoilers for Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.
Before Sunset ended with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Celine’s apartment, and it’s not entirely clear if Jesse is going to decide to stay in Paris and leave his loveless marriage in the process. It turns out he did. Before Midnight is set ten years later and Jesse and Celine have been in a long term relationship ever since and have two twin daughters. This new installment is set on a Greek island where the whole family has been vacationing at the estate of an elderly writer who admires the novels that Jesse had previously written about his earlier meetings with Celine. The film begins with Jesse at the airport seeing off his son Henry (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) who is going back to live with his mother in Chicago after having spent the summer with Jesse and Celine. Afterwards he and Celine drive back to the estate and on the way Jesse floats the idea of moving back to the United States to be with Henry, which Celine reacts quite negatively to. And that will be the seed of a new series of candid discussions and revelations for the audience to watch.
These movies are so simple. The first two movies were basically just: man and woman talk, go. They probably wouldn’t have even bothered having them walk through the European cities while having these conversations had they not needed to add visual interest to the proceedings. At its heart this movie is mostly more of that, but it isn’t a slave to the formula either. There isn’t as much of a ticking clock this time around for one thing, and the film is also less strictly a two-person-only affair, at least in its first half. It makes sense that the dynamics would be different this time around given that it’s about people who have been together for years rather than people who are just meeting or just reuniting. Some of the conversations this time around are a lot more heated as well, it’s not a film about doe-eyed love, in fact it’s in many ways about the consequences about what came before.
In particular, Jesse is experiencing the fallout of his decision to follow his heart and leave his first wife. It’s the fact that Jesse misses his son that plants the seed of the conflict between Jesse and Celine for much of the film, and we really get to see both sides of the situation. Celine has pretty good reason to not want to entertain the notion of uprooting her family over Jesse’s sentimental desire to be with his son every weekend and she also has good reason to call him on some of his passive-aggressive bullshit. On the flipside, Celine is being more than a little strident and accusatory in some of her arguments and Jesse’s reasons to want to move are mostly selfless urges that shouldn’t have to be shut down so vociferously.
I’ve talked a lot about the arguing in the film, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is some kind of modern version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe or Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The film shows the good times as much if not more than the bad, and not all of the conversations are about the couple’s personal problems. Through more mundane (but equally interesting) discussions we get a very complete picture of what Jesse and Celine’s lives have been like and continue to gain insights into both complex individuals. And the series isn’t really just about these individuals, there’s something more universal going on here. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (who have all collectively co-written the screenplay) seem to have really tapped into some larger truths about the way that men and women interact with one another and about the life patterns that people tend to follow.
Some people are almost certainly going to be asking if this is a film that can be seen without having seen the previous entries in the “before” trilogy. Well, the answer is “yes,” you can see this film without prior knowledge of the previous films, but that doesn’t mean that you should. There’s enough exposition here for the uninitiated to put together the basic plot points of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which isn’t saying much because the basic plot outlines of those movies aren’t all that complicated, and I do think that Before Midnight can stand on its own. However, to see this film outside of the context of the trilogy it inhabits is to rob yourself of the incredibly rewarding experience of seeing Jesse and Celine grow and mature in front of you. Not since Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy (which interestingly also featured Julie Delpy) have we seen a film trilogy for adults come together this perfectly, and if this installment could have been any better I don’t know how.
**** out of Four