Before Midnight, like its two predecessors, is about the flowering of a mood over a period of less than a day between two characters: an American, Jesse, and a Frenchwoman, Celine. But where the earlier two films achieve erotic release, the third keeps veering off into irritable argument, which curiously seems proof that the couple have finally achieved a true intimacy.
For those who have seen Before Sunrise (95) and Before Sunset (04), the shock, which comes early in the new film through backstory dialogue, is that Jesse and Celine have apparently been together ever since he missed his plane to prolong his stay with her at the end of the previous film. So forget any Same Time Next Year schema. There will be no more chance encounters ending in sex. The spousal future they had fantasized about and dreaded in the other two movies has arrived. For better or worse, they are a functioning couple. Toting around twin daughters—children change everything—they can no longer con each other, he with his hangdog aw-shucks Texas guile, she with her sexy Nina Simone imitations. They are stuck with each other—or not. In any case, knowledge has replaced seduction and its idealizing projections. If in their first romantic encounter they asked what they might dislike about each other, then fudged the question, now they are prepared to enumerate.
It is hard to think of anything quite like the Before triptych in the history of American movies. We might range farther afield and consider the British Up series for analogous longitudinal insight into the aging process, or Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage for similar dissection of a couple’s divergent dynamics, or the exquisitely talky, modestly budgeted films of Eric Rohmer or late Alain Resnais, but these comparisons won’t account for this trilogy’s uniqueness. What began in Before Sunrise as a light-melancholy romance about two appealing, ambitious twenty-somethings having a one-night stand, and then took on chastened but still hopeful shadings (he unhappily married, she still single) for the thirty-somethings in Before Sunset, has now been deepened immeasurably. The onset of middle age has brought the series, with timeliness, to a harsher, tougher, more implacable redoubt. The infinite possibilities of youth having permanently narrowed, the persistence of a boyishly immature or ingénue self into one’s forties has lost its allure.
Ethan Hawke’s Jesse looks somewhat the worse for wear, scruffy, sloppily dressed, and no longer dewy-cute. The actor has always had something rat-like about him, with his scraggly half-beard and shifty eyes: conveying an air of apology in advance for disappointing, he’s not the star you want to see in an action movie saving the planet. He’s in effect the ideal representative of a self-mistrustful, vain Generation Xer, paralyzed by multiple options. Hawke, brilliant here, has no qualms about making Jesse look glib and not entirely dependable. You can’t blame Celine for suspecting him of trying to weasel out of his familial responsibilities. She is utterly onto his entitled sense of himself as The Writer, going on book tours and leaving her to take care of the kids, given to daily pensive strolls while she runs the household and tries to maintain a career, accepting the sexual favors of groupies and the flattery of fellow writers. At the same time Delpy’s Celine has herself become rather a pill, a mother superior all too quick to get on his case. This actress, vivacious as she may be, has always conveyed an annoyingly coy, gamine self-righteousness. Together, the two principals show a nuanced understanding of their characters’ vulnerabilities and contradictions, having honed them over a participatory filmmaking experience spanning three decades.
The auteur of the Before series must thus be considered a triumvirate. Linklater has given us a slew of fine, intelligent films about the arrested-development male, from Slacker (91) to School of Rock (03) to Bernie (11) to the Before trilogy, his masterpiece. Hawke and Delpy again share two-thirds of the screenwriting credit with their director—no surprise, since Hawke, like his character, has written novels, while Delpy has directed and written several films of her own—and it’s probable that a fair amount of the dialogue came from them.
Although Before Midnight works as a stand-alone piece, one of the delights of seeing the three films together is realizing how much they echo each other. For instance, the “time machine” motif keeps recurring as a device for cheating fate. Jesse’s seduction of Celine in Before Sunrise hinges partly on the premise that she should get off the train and spend time with him because she would regret it later on if she didn’t. She would think of him romantically as a mysterious stranger to whom she could have gotten closer but didn’t, whereas this way she has a chance to learn that he’s nothing special. At the end of Before Midnight, Jesse again invokes the time machine, saying he has been to the future and learned that the sex they will have this night will be fantastic, so she had better stick with him. More importantly, the fault lines in their relationship (his condescension and passivity, her humorless political moralism) to some extent echo the first two films, so that when the tension erupts in the third, we are not surprised.
The central conflict revolves around Jesse’s belated remorse and sense of responsibility toward Hank, his son by his previous marriage. Whatever romantic ache hovers over the movie has more to do with Jesse’s feelings toward his absent son than with his present partner.
While Before Midnight is not as locked into real time as Before Sunset, it is more radically constructed around a series of five scenic blocks or units. (Linklater, who has flirted with unity of time in the past, here goes further in the experimental direction of long-duration takes, aided by Christos Voudouris’s stunning cinematography, which snares the beautiful Mediterranean light without softening it.) The first scene shows Jesse parting from his 13-year-old son at the airport of the Greek island where they have been vacationing. The second scene is a long drive to their vacation house, the twins sleeping in the back of the car and Jesse and Celine conversing in front. It is here that Jesse tentatively half-raises the possibility of uprooting Celine and the girls from Europe and relocating the family to Chicago, where he could at least see his son every other weekend. What is remarkable is how quickly Celine sees through this still-inchoate maneuver, and how fiercely she puts her dukes up against it. She rightly judges his sense of paternal duty toward Hank as too little too late, and if anything a potential fleeing of his responsibility toward her and the girls. She is also furious at him for not appreciating the important government job offer she is considering, which would keep her in Paris. The argument is sidetracked, thanks partly to Jesse’s confrontation-avoiding diplomacy, and Celine asserts herself as “the general,” issuing orders to the girls, now awake, and consigning her husband to the role of private.
The third scenic unit is a long outdoor luncheon with friends and neighbors, in which the discussion roams from new technology to the creative process, but inevitably keeps circling around the differences between men and women, and what it might take to keep love alive between them. (This alfresco symposium has the air of something indigenous to European art cinema, say, a scene from Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, or Claude Sautet’s A Heart in Winter.) Shards of feminist resentment crop up in Celine’s invocation of gender distinctions, but in a sense this is nothing new: from their first meeting in Before Sunrise, she and Jesse have always needled each other by attributing stereotyped polarities to one another: I Man, You Woman; I French, You American. She does a hilarious send-up of a bimbo gushing over Jesse upon learning he is a Writer. In turn, Jesse affects a Latin lover growl, alternately Spanish or Greek, as a come-on. Underneath the parodies they seem to be fumbling to find some way back to their original romantic spark. No longer able to wow the other with their everyday natures, they try on different personae. This role-playing is indicative of a larger problem: the unstable, provisional self. They are stuck acting the part of grown-ups while trying to remain forever young, true to their adolescent dreams, their limitless desire to get the most out of life. In any case, we know from Before Sunrise that they are generational impostors: Celine often thinks of herself as an old woman pretending to be young, and Jesse often feels like a 13-year-old boy.
Their friends, volunteering to babysit the twins, have given them the present of a night alone together in a luxurious hotel. So begins the fourth act, a long, rambling Steadicam walk through the Greek island, in which the couple alternately make nice and spar. They know they are supposed to be having a romantic, sexy evening, but the conversation keeps revolving around kids and mutual mistrust. They stop in at a chapel with candles and icons (a bow, perhaps, to Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, that cinematic ur-text for feuding couples on vacation). Eventually they reach the hotel suite, where the longest, and climactic block occurs.
The room is rather impersonal: Celine hates it, while Jesse, connoisseur of anonymous luxury hotels from his book tours, approves. They start getting down to business but a phone call from Hank interrupts the foreplay. Celine takes it, speaks sweetly to her stepson—but this time it is Jesse who ruins the mood by chiding her for a flippant comment she makes to Hank about his mother. Rekindling romance gets tabled in favor of a no-holds-barred fight, and one realizes that quarreling has taken precedence over sex as the means this couple has evolved for kick-starting emotional connection. Celine criticizes Jesse for his monotonous lovemaking, and for abandoning her when the twins were first born, while Jesse insists she is insane, a madwoman who revels in anger. They thus square off as the jousting knights, Anger and Depression. Accusations of past infidelities ensue; Celine keeps storming out of the hotel room, then coming back to fight anew (as the camera crisscrosses the modern suite, it is hard not to think of a similar quarrel in Godard’s Contempt), and finally she reaches a revelation, declaring that the real problem is that she no longer loves him. She leaves, and this time doesn’t return.
This could have been the Doll’s-House-Nora-slamming-the-door moment that brings the trilogy to a conclusion. But it is now up to Jesse to remedy things, and he does so with some resourceful fast-talking (he is, after all, a Writer), deconstructing her statement and pointing toward a less romantic definition of love. In this coda, roused from his customary coasting, he has managed to spring into action, activate his old charm, and bring about a temporary truce, and so the film ends, on a satisfactory note of irresolution. Of course, there is nothing to say that a fourth or fifth chapter may not someday appear, but I rather think it has been taken as far as it can go. In that case, Before Midnight is the triumphant capstone of Richard Linklater’s extended project, and a remarkably sage achievement. With Terrence Malick floating off into the wonder, and Steven Soderbergh withdrawing from the field, and Quentin Tarantino clinging to the movie-mad grindhouse of his youth, Linklater seems the only one of his generation willing to address the disenchantments and readjustments of mature adults.