Their story already goes back some 18 years, to that night in Vienna, when Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a Frenchwoman, were just two wandering kids in their early 20s, soaking up the world, meeting perchance on a train, taking a dare to honour the connection both felt so acutely, to not let it simply slip away and wind up always wondering what might have become of the one that got away.
That night was captured in Before Sunrise (1995), a perfectly lovely little film, but one that came to mean much, much more to me once I saw Before Sunset (2004), in which Jesse and Celine reunite in Paris on the occasion of Jesse’s book tour: his first novel was a fictionalized version of that night they met, maybe fell in love, and parted for nine years without any way of contacting each other. Now in their 30s, they wander the city of light, tell each other of what their lives have become; she’s single, and a somewhat domesticated activist, while he married, had a child, and became a writer, though the married part isn’t going so well. As with its predecessor, this most meaningful of sequels ends in a moment of heady suspension, in Celine’s apartment, with Celine dancing seductively to Nina Simone, and Jesse very much in danger of missing his flight home. (Does it make me a cynic or a romantic that when I last re-watched Before Sunrise, in preparation for seeing Before Midnight, I was suddenly struck by the feeling that the film may just depict the ideal relationship, one composed almost entirely of longing and projection?) If you’ve seen these films and were drawn deep into them as I was, you hardly need me to tell you about Before Midnight to convince you to see it. Read ahead if you wish, though you may want to let the film do the work of bringing you up to speed and come back to this review later.
Before Midnight begins with a farewell, not between our eternally returning lovers, but between Jesse and Hank, his now 13-year-old son, who is returning to Chicago and his mother, now divorced from Jesse, who did not catch that plane. In fact, he stayed, married Celine, and the couple, now in their 40s, have children of their own: angelic bilingual flaxen-haired twins. The family is vacationing in Greece, and while driving from the airport to the idyllic seaside house where they’re staying Jesse raises the possibility of their trying out the States for a while, just to be closer to Hank. Celine immediately pegs this suggestion as symptomatic of a bigger scheme of Jesse’s to avoid responsibilities to his current family, not to mention ignore the fact that she’s been offered an important government job that would keep her in Paris. Jesse’s seemingly innocent idea lays the seed of discontent that will grow into a potentially cataclysmic battle between a passive-aggressive husband and a more brazenly resentful wife. Some friends arrange to mind the kids so Jesse and Celine can run off to enjoy an interruption-free night of love in a nice hotel, but the chances of erotic fulfillment slowly erode as the couple make their way into town, exchanging some of the most unnervingly resonant dialogue between long-term lovers I’ve ever heard in in any film.
The script is a collaboration between Hawke, Delpy and director Richard Linklater, and this trilogy of films—along with a wonderful little Jesse and Celine cameo in Waking Life (2001)—will likely stand as the most enduring work in all of these artists’ respective legacies. There’s nothing in cinema history quite like it, though Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and its follow-up Saraband (2005) come close, while as a stand-alone film Before Midnight perhaps most closely resembles Certified Copy (2010). The trilogy allows the actors to age and the story and characters to age with them, to ripen to the point where, wordy as these films are, so much is left unsaid. Before Midnight feels to me like the best of the three, but is it simply that I too have aged with Jesse and Celine, who are only a little older than me? That I see things gained and lost in my own life as I watch theirs unfold in nine-year wallop-increments?
Linklater elegantly lets Before Midnight’s five sections play out in long takes, adding to the sense of the real, to the earned intimacy and organic burgeoning of tension. As the film reaches its end, there are cups of tea left un-sipped, glasses of wine left un-drank, bodies left unloved, questions left unanswered. Again, that heady suspension, though now altered by so many unalterable life choices riddled with consequence. Will there be a fourth film? The door has been left open. But for now we get to live for a while with this one.