Top: "Before Sunrise" (1995). Bottom: "Before Sunset" (2004).
Top: "Before Sunrise" (1995). Bottom: "Before Sunset" (2004).

With the context in place, "Before Midnight" seamlessly drifts into a now-familiar routine, as Céline and Jesse resolve to spend their final night off in a hotel across town, then wander towards it while talking things through. With Linklater's camera gliding alongside, the couple engages with typical fears of the personal desires, family matters and the ubiquity of the aging process. Sharing anecdotes and random jokes, Céline realizes that they're on the brink of another transformative moment: "How long has it been since we walked around bullshitting?" It's a prophetic admission, because when the bullshitting stops during the dramatic exchanges of the final act, "Before Midnight" bursts into daunting terrain for anyone enthralled by Céline and Jesse over the years. It's not fun to see your friends fight.

In the hotel room, Linklater shifts between shot/reverse shot arrangements while letting his actors relish the challenge of constructing a truly organic argument. More precise than the abstractions that dominated the discourse in "Before Sunset," the heated chatter hinges on a frequent inability to tell who has the upper hand. The constant seesawing fuses humor and sadness in a thrilling blend as both characters take potshots at each other's weak spots.

"I'm sorry to ruin your perfect little narrative of oppression with the truth," Jesse spouts when Céline complains about her restrictive parenting style. Her frustrations also build to fiery extremes riddled with equally quotable one-liners ("I'm starting to associate thoughts with the smell of shit"). Delpy's capacity to strike a mocking tone while retaining some ambiguity gives Céline the assertive upper hand. "I'm kidding and I'm not," she says at one point, which is another way of saying she doesn't really know.

Because their lives have grown more tangled and cumbersome, the style of the series has grown with them. Possibly Linklater's most refined achievement, "Before Midnight" magnifies the experience of self-examination with greater emotional weight than its predecessors. While still leaving open their future prospects, the movie brings the experiment full circle by returning to the existential yearning Linklater captures so well. It's an inviting routine: "Before Midnight" is the rare cinematic achievement that implicates alert viewers in its mission to understand the mysteries of intimate connections. "I really cherish this communication we have," Jesse says to his son, but he's also addressing the audience.

Criticwire grade: A+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering out of competition at Sundance, "Before Midnight" is bound to attract numerous distribution offers and find solid commercial response in limited release on par with the reception of the previous entries. It next screens at the Berlin International Film Festival.