What happened at the cliffhanger ending of 2004's "Before Sunset?" Did Jesse (Ethan Hawke) manage to catch his flight back to the United States or did he and Celine (Julie Delpy) finally re-consummate their nine-year-after-the-fact romance? These questions are answered in Richard Linklater's trilogy-concluding "Before Midnight," a charming and funny, but much more emotionally difficult and pained picture than one might have imagined. Those expecting another swooningly romantic movie are going to be in for a rude awakening. While "Before Midnight" certainly has its appealing moments of allure and levity, it's ultimately more "This Is 40"-style pain with much more honesty and real bite than Judd Apatow would likely ever go for, and when "Before Midnight" bares its fangs and becomes uncomfortable there are few moments of comedic relief or a new jaunty scene to cut to.
Like the gap between "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," the third film of Linklater's trilogy takes place nine years later and a lot has transpired. While Jesse and Celine aren't married, they are a couple and are vacationing with twin daughters in Greece. Jesse's teenage son Henry from his previous marriage — the one that finally collapsed when Jesse chose to stay with Celine with France — is visiting, and the movie opens with the family saying goodbye. Henry, who tells his dad he's just had the best summer of his life, is boarding a plane back to the U.S. and Jesse is heartbroken at having to let his son go. What's great about the opening and these big changes are that they're just part of the new fabric of life, and aren't revealed in any particularly special fashion. Like the characters, the film has pragmatic responsibilities and schedules to keep — the kids need to be fed, or put to bed, or driven somewhere, and there's just no time to waste.
Henry is off, and then in a terrific, one-take, 20-minute shot, Celine and Jesse talk and talk and talk, along the way filling in the blanks of the last nine years, but organically, naturally, realistically. Their effortless chemistry is such that they vacillate and ping-pong off myriad topics: funny observations about life, philosophical questions, job opportunities, global and social politics, the nature of being good or bad parents, how their lives have changed and the guilty ache that Jesse feels for having abandoned his child. This is not entirely true, and we glean that a messy divorce meant that Jesse only gets limited custody of his child, and now that his new family lives in France, rarely gets to spend much quality time with his son. Regardless, Jesse feels as if he has failed his son and pines to magically fix the situation with his estranged ex-wife. But Celine reads this as Jesse passive-aggressively suggesting that what he actually means is that they should uproot their family and move to Chicago to be closer to Henry. And this is where the theme of miscommunication and hearing what you want to hear rears its ugly head and rarely ever leaves.
That said, "Before Midnight" is almost two movies cut into three acts. There's the just-described opening and then there's the lighter, more comedic and philosophical section in Greece with the people that they are staying with (an invitation from a fellow writer that admires Jesse's novels) and the final act where Jesse and Celine leave the kids behind for a romantic evening in a hotel by themselves — a gift from their friends. And it's in this final section where the characters in "Before Midnight" become brutally honest with themselves, to almost agonizing and distressing levels, though not without some moments of comedy between the fighting, the finger-pointing and the hurtful words. The second section of the film feels very much like a talky Richard Linklater picture (think "Waking Life," or moments of "Slacker") and essentially boils down to a big table of friends eating and conversing about life — intellectual, philosophical and social ideas revolving around technology, sex, romance, memory, perception and more. During these conversations, a glint of tension is felt between Celine and Jesse, but it really doesn't prepare us for the harsh reality of the third act.
Jesse and Celine go on their romantic evening trip, their last day of vacation, and while it begins well, when they reach the hotel their attempts at having sex soon deteriorate into a near-nasty blame game of insecurity, frustration, misunderstandings and a full-on failure to argue successfully. All married (or long-term) couples will fight and argue, but Jesse and Celine have apparently missed the memo about how to argue without degenerating into WWIII. But this fight, like any that snowballs out of control, is painfully real — you don't remember how it started or what triggered it, but you know how shitty you feel when it's reached its crescendo. Celine feels like she's a slave to her children and her husband, a maid to them all. Jesse's still struggling with his feelings about his son's situation, and like the opening scene the characters ricochet off the various issues and deal breakers they have with one another.
Slightly troubling, even though the film is written by all three characters, is the short shrift that Celine gets in these arguments. She comes across as the crazy, neurotic mother, and at the same time, many mothers would probably agree, there's a mental strain there that men generally do not have to experience so acutely. Still, it's somewhat disconcerting that Jesse is generally more collected. While the film shakes off its dour mood by the end, it's hardly wrapped up in a pretty little bow.
Characterized by long, unbroken takes where Jesse and Celine just talk, the 'Before' Linklater films have always put the focus on the characters and performances, but this installment of the franchise feels especially determined in this direction. While not the most fun or sexiest film in this trilogy — do you want to watch mom and dad fight for 30 minutes straight? — it's easily the most necessary, and it's the logical extension of where this relationship story should and must go. It's a brave, creative decision on the trio's part, and it'll be interesting to see how civilians in the real world react to the film. Falling in love is easy. Sustaining love with the complicated burden of life on top of it all is hard. Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight" isn't the most digestible picture, but its challenging, funny, painful, very present and alive depiction of relationships at 40 is so honest and real that we wouldn't have it any other way. [B]