The magic alchemy originally conjured 18 years ago by director Richard Linklater and two gifted actors–Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who could sustain scenes across lengthy uncut takes– finds its third iteration in “Before Midnight.” It’s a tour-de-force home run that will play like gangbusters in smart-house theaters all over the world and should mark a major Sundance sale orchestrated by Cinetic Media.
“Before Sunrise” marked the first romantic encounter between Hawke and Delpy, and “Before Sunset,” nine years later, the second. In this one, our articulate couple is 40ish with children–four-year-old girl twins–and over the fading days of a halcyon Greek vacation, they hash out all the issues in their unmarried relationship, first in a sublimely executed long take car shot, next over dinner with friends (shot with multiple cameras), and finally at a resort hotel, where they try to ignite some romance.
The American expat writer (Hawke) and his French environmental activist partner (Delpy) clearly love each other, but the issues that trouble them–custody battle over his son with his ex-wife, child care and housekeeping, sex, career vs. career–threaten to topple the relationship when they come pouring out.
Linklater and these deft comedic actors keep things moving, with plenty of laughs and moments of painful recognition. The film never drags: the long-take narrative keeps us engaged and stimulated by its man vs. woman debate for the ages–full of regret, anxiety, love and intimacy. It’s the real deal. As one of them says, when it comes to marriage, “you have to be a little deluded to stay motivated.”
“We realized the characters are still alive,” said Linklater at the Q & A. “We know each other real well. I’m always going for naturalism, workshopping it, scripting very specifically, going for the flow.” Delpy says they rehearse a lot and change the lines to make them work. On every film they dig a little deeper into the characters by writing them. (Hawke was in New York directing a play.)
Faces crease, bodies swell, and life accumulates such a mountain of crummy responsibilities it seems there’s no space left for living. But the work Richard Linklater and company started in 1995’s Before Sunrise retains a clarity of spirit undimmed by 18 years. In Before Midnight, its two lovers not only have longings and worries we identify with; they fight as we do, too. They are as convincing in middle age as they were as passionate youths sharing a one-night encounter. Though this stage is harder to watch, audiences who have aged along with Celine and Jesse will treasure this new episode.
It once again revolves around a series of conversations between Celine and Jesse. It does not take place in real time. It is set on a beautiful island in Greece. Oh, and it’s perfect. That’s a strong word to use, especially in a heady festival environment like this one, where a crowd’s excitement can sweep you irrevocably away. But if you thought the first two films in this series were perfect, as I did, Before Midnight will line up right alongside them, yet another beautiful and evocative and thoughtful and funny moment in time between two people who, by now, feel as familiar as our own friends.
With “Before Midnight,” Richard Linklater has completed one of the finest movie trilogies of all time… 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.
But where the magic of the first two films was the charming disjunct between the warring outlooks of the American and the European, Before Midnight makes this rift much more literal and much less fun. Jesse thinks he needs to be with his son, and Celine takes this as a sign that her partner wants to whisk herself and their girls off to Chicago… And so the repartee begins, but this time seeming much less fresh and much more contrived than before. There are moments of truth and comedy for sure, and many long-standing couples will recognise themselves at several points in this awkward night of reflection.