After long years, they live together as a couple. They are no longer two young students who accidentally met each other for the first time in “Before Sunrise”(1995), and they are more jaded than when they came across the possibility of second chance as two older and wiser adults in “Before Sunset”(2004), but it is still wonderful to meet them again and we find ourselves drawn to their thoughts and feelings as they talk and talk.
As the third chapter of ‘Before Trilogy’, Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” looks beyond where its predecessor “Before Sunset” ended. Again, we observe them talk with each other or others during most of its running time, and the movie slowly reveals how much they are changed or not changed through its superlative conversations scenes shining with humor and intelligence. They can still have a fun while they are together, but, as an adult couple coping with reality everyday, they are now far different from who they were 18 years ago. They are again reminded that they cannot be as romantic as before, so anxiety and discontent naturally seep into their relationship, and they begin to wonder: is this the end of their romance?
As we look at them, we come to learn some bits about what has happened to Jesse(Ethan Hawke) and Celine(Julie Delpy) during 9 years since the last shot of “Before Sunset”. Jesse eventually missed his plane and stayed at Celine’s apartment, and, according to his second novel inspired by that time, they seemed to have a very passionate moment together after that. As a consequence, Jesse was divorced from his wife several years ago to live with Celine, and now they have lovely twin daughters at present.
They are spending their summer vacation in the Peloponnesus of Greece, and Jesse is glad that his son from previous marriage had a great time with them during last several weeks. The opening scene at Kalamata airport shows Jesse sending back his son to Chicago, and we see them having a short father and son talk before departure. Although his son feels not bad about being separated from his dad again, Jesse regretfully feels that he should have spent more time with his son, and he wants to be with his son more if he can.
While he drives his car back to their vacation spot with their daughters sleeping in the backseat and Celine sitting next to him, Jesse and Celine talk with each other on several things including how Jesse’s son enjoyed the vacation with them. This scene is virtually a longtake scene with a few interruptions and we only stare at them for a while, but Hawke and Delpy, who wrote the screenplay with Linklater and also improvised their dialogues during production, handle this scene with natural spontaneity, and we willingly listen to their conversation with interest. Still feeling regretful, Jesse considers moving his family to US(they have been living in France), but Celine does not like that idea because she is at a crucial point in her career – and she is concerned that this trivial argument may initiate the dissolution of their relationship.
But they look happy to be with each other as a loving and pleasant couple, and they continue to spend nice summertime at a cozy place for writers near the sea with their Greek friends who invited Jesse and Celine. While Jesse talks with other guys on what he is soon going to write, Celine talks with other ladies as they prepare dinner in the kitchen, and, as they are enjoying the dinner together later, the conversations on many various topics such as romance, marriage, and the future of modern civilization go around between them. This scene is so exciting that I would have not have complained at all even if the movie had spent all of its running time to this terrific moment.
Anyway, the story eventually converges on Jesse and Celine. They get a chance to spend their private night together at a hotel nearby by the courtesy of their friends, so, as they walk alone together to the hotel, another long but very interesting conversation begins. Even though they are older, they still can have a fun talk as they did in their shared past, but they also recognize that they are not young any more. More reflective about their life, they see their past from a young couple at their dinner, and they have wistful feeling about their past moments which had already fleeted by them a long time ago.
And then, as they freely talk more with each other, we come to see that they have problems like any normal couples. Not long after they check in the hotel room ready for them, the mood between them approaches to those tense and hurtful moments in Ingmar Bergman’s great chamber drama “Scenes from a Marriage”(1973). Mainly due to their flawed personalities, they have been frustrated about each other a lot despite their mutual affection, and the barbed words are exchanged between them as frustration and discontent erupt on the screen. They say honesty is the best way, but honesty sometimes hurts a lot especially in case of the conversation between spouses, and its destructiveness can threaten even a long, stable relationship no matter how much they care about each other.
Sometimes it feels a bit stagy, but Linklater and his two performers keep this very long scene, which takes at least more than 20 minutes, both lively and intense. Jesse and Celine try to resolve their sudden conflict and then have a good night sex, but they reveal their unlikable sides to each other more during their heated argument. Jesse is a caring father and husband, but he can be a self-absorbed writer at times; Celine is a kind mother and wife, but she can be a little too reactive on small matters as a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. As their flaws clash with each other within a small place, the situation becomes quite suspenseful because it is possible that their night is not the only thing to be ruined. They might have gone through similar fights at their home, but now they have more doubt about their relationship than ever.
With his plain, unobtrusive approach, the director Richard Linklater effortlessly shifts the tone between drama and comedy throughout the film, and Hawke and Delpy give well-rounded natural performances as the performers who have literally aged and matured along with the deep knowledge on their characters. Because we have known them through previous films, their present appearance has the poignancy generated from our memories with “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset”, and we feel the passage of the time along with them. I was 21 when I watched “Before Sunset” after watching “Before Sunrise”(I was a little too young when the movie came out, you know), and now I become 30 as an adult as jaded as they were in “Before Sunset”. I have experienced my own share of disappointment and disillusion during last 9 years, and I am also frequently regretful about lost time and lost opportunities like they were when I look back at my life of 30 years. After another 9 years, I will probably have more regrets just like they do in this film.
In spite of its bitter moments, the movie ultimately comes to me as a hopeful film about love and relationship. Watching the movie neatly leaving Jesse and Celine as the previous films did, I was reminded of how the couple of “Scenes of a Marriage” arrived at a peaceful point in the end. Despite so many hurts inflicted on each other and their marriage, the couple in that movie came to understand and learn more about each other, and their last moment had a tender romantic feeling in spite of the irony inside it.
As the fictional characters leading their life with free will in front of us, Jesse and Celine will continue their life story for themselves, and I think they will also learn more about their relationship and themselves no matter what happens after their midnight. They are not that romantic any more, but unromantic films are sometimes paradoxically more romantic than average romantic films, and the movie touchingly presents their imperfect but heartfelt relationship as the satisfying third chapter for the exceptional romance trilogy which was incidentally begun 18 years ago.
“Before Midnight” is a small gem to be appreciated, and I think it is one of the best films of this year. Like many good human dramas, it shows us that genuine human interaction is far more interesting and absorbing than soulless CGI spectacles, and we smile or nod as we watch it from the beginning to the end. I have no idea about whether Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy are considering making another movie about their characters, but I will certainly welcome it if they plan to make it.
By the way, although I recently quoted it in one of my reviews several months ago, I feel the urge to quote again what great film music composer Alex North said at the 1987 Oscar ceremony after receiving the honorary award, for I think what has been captured in Before Trilogy resonates with North’s sincere wish to filmmakers.
“I would like to make a humble plea to all of us involved in the movies. That is to encourage and convey hope, humor, compassion, adventure, and love, as opposed to despair, synthetic theatrics, and blatant bloody violence. And sex, sex, sex, by all means…. indeed, but with a bit of mystery, a touch of charm and elegance, and lots of imagination.”