Before Midnight

****

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“To passing through…”

Before Midnight

The H-Bomb: In 1995, versatile indie filmmaker Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly) brought us Before Sunrise, a charming romantic comedy-drama about 23-year-old American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) who meets young French woman, Celine (Julie Delpy), on a train to Vienna. They end up getting off the train together, and spend the night wandering the streets of Vienna, discussing their dreams, their philosophies, and practically everything else under the moon. A romance blossoms, but because Jesse’s going back to the States the next day, it can’t last. So, they make a deal to meet again in Vienna six months later.

That film ended on the uncertainty of whether or not Jesse and Celine would make the rendezvous. Nine years later, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy re-united for a sequel, Before Sunset, and we got the answer to that question… they didn’t. However, Jesse, at this point 32 and married with a son, did write a book about that night, and while on a signing tour in Paris, he meets up with Celine once again. They only have about 90 minutes before Jesse has to leave for the airport, so they mosey about Paris playing catch up with each other, and during their time together, they find their spark re-kindling, and their romance deepening. They end up back at Celine’s apartment, with Jesse no longer caring if he makes his flight or not.

Unabashedly romantic, but emotionally frank and realistic, with two fantastic performances set against a beautiful back drop, Before Sunset was a delightful surprise in that it was just exceptional on every level. I was rather astonished, in the best way possible, at how much I genuinely loved it, and it turned out to be one of my favorite movies of 2004. Now, jumping ahead another nine years, we catch up with Jesse and Celine again in Before Midnight. They’ve been together for most of the past decade, and while they’ve never married, they do have twin daughters. It’s the end of the summer, and they’ve spent the past six weeks vacationing at a friend’s guest house in the Greek countryside.

They’re (obviously) now in their early forties, and while they still excel at discussing life, love, and philosophy to no end, they are also dealing with many more insecurities now that they’ve reached middle-age. Jesse may still dress like a twenty-something bohemian hipster, but as of late, he’s been having trouble coming up with a workable idea for his next novel. He’s also a bit alarmed at how fast his son, who’s starting high school, is growing up. And since he only sees his son during summer and winter breaks, he worries that he’s missing out on his “most important” years.

Celine, meanwhile, is a bundle of neuroses all her own. She’s all too aware that she’s not getting any younger, and she fears that, professionally, she never will live up to her potential. It doesn’t help that Jesse is talking about moving to Chicago to be closer to his son, which would mean she would have to give up her career, altogether. All of these festering concerns, as well as the many other misgivings that Jesse and Celine have towards each other, come to a head on what was supposed to be their final romantic evening in Greece. As their bickering gradually escalates and turns into all out arguing, everything will boil down to one simple question, do they still love each other, or is it perhaps time for them to call it quits?

Before Midnight has left me feeling rather torn. On the one hand, Hawke and Delpy, who have once again co-scripted along with Linklater, are absolutely terrific in the roles that they created nearly two decades ago. They slide right back into these characters as if they never left. Their chemistry is undeniable, their relationship is utterly believable, and they make Jesse and Celine as endearing as ever. Spending time with these two and listening to them gab on and on about anything and everything is a pleasure that I’m happy to indulge in anytime. Then there are the picturesque Greek locales, which are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Christos Voudouris, that add to the experience immeasurably.

On the other hand, there’s something, slight but noticeable, missing this time. I got the feeling early on in the film that something was amiss, when Jesse and Celine are interacting with several other characters, most notably at a rather lengthy dinner table scene. It never ceased to be entertaining and interesting, but in the earlier films, it was all about Jesse and Celine being together, and their interactions with others were kept to a bare minimum. This time, roughly half the film is them hanging out with a group of friends, and to me it seemed weirdly intrusive. I’m here to spend time with Celine and Jesse, and see how their relationship has evolved, who the fuck are all these other people, and why won’t they go away? Maybe it’s just me, but I found the presence of these outsiders a wee bit irksome, after a while.

Then, in second half, Celine and Jesse are finally by themselves, and at last, Before Midnight started to feel more in step with the previous movies. They walk and talk through all sorts of pretty scenery like before, and then, when they get to their hotel, they get into that aforementioned spat, that turns into the full blown argument, that pretty much goes on for the rest of the film. When this happened, the charm, that made the first two films so special, started to evaporate, and before I knew it, I was no longer watching an idiosyncratic romance, I was watching a middle-age couple fight.

It certainly didn’t kill the film for me, not even close, and it felt utterly real and organic, but it did put a damper on things and made the film somewhat less enjoyable than the ones that came before, particularly the excellent second film. Still, Linklater managed to keep the argument engaging, and give it the feeling that the relationship was in jeopardy, without making it melodramatic, which is commendable. Also, seeing Celine and Jesse at this low point did make me root for them all the more, so I suppose this turn in the story worked better than I orginally thought. However, my
initial reaction to it was, “Man, what a bummer.”

My issues with the film notwithstanding, Before Midnight is still mostly a wonderful picture and a worthy continuation in the “saga” of Jesse and Celine. For those youthful morons reared on that Twilight garbage, I would love nothing more than to forcibly sit them down and make them watch all three chapters of the “Before Trilogy”, so they can see a cinematic love story that’s intelligent, funny, and insightful. Talky without being static or dull, romantic without being sentimental or sappy, these are truly special films that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have crafted, and Before Midnight is no exception.

 


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