Richard Linklater was heralded as a major new American filmmaker with his first feature “Slacker” in 1991, and he’s never really slowed down. While delivering the occasional mixed bag (“SubUrbia,” “Tape”), he destroyed any expectations of a sophomore slump with the still-potent “Dazed and Confused,” then deepened his brand with the grandest achievement of his career to date, “Before Sunrise.”
It wasn’t so much that this brooding two-hander romance starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke embroiled in philosophical chatter over the course of a single memorable night broke new ground; rather, it had the audacity to make peace with its simple premise and imbue it with profound ideas. Having established a formula that works — strong, likable characters + intellectual debate = uniquely thrilling cinema about the nuances of human behavior — Linklater again capitalized on the concept with the equally well-received sequel “Before Sunset,” which follows the same characters a decade later.
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Now the saga is a trilogy, with the same characters reunited again in “Before Midnight,” which hits the Sundance Film Festival Premieres section next month. It’s hard to imagine this latest installment could possibly disappoint anyone already smitten with the continuing exploits of Jesse and Celine, the soulful would-be lovers struggling with issues both practical and existential as they wander about in real time. I’m calling it now: “Before Midnight” is almost certain to please crowds at Sundance and beyond, attract meaty offers from arthouse distributors and garner critical acclaim on par with the reception of the last two movies, perhaps even surpassing them. “Before Sunset,” you may recall, bested the reception of the first film by topping numerous critics’ polls in 2004 and landing an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay (credited to Linklater, Hawke and Delpy).
The usual “Sunrise” team has some great new partners. Shot in three weeks in Greece, the new film involved the cooperation of local talent that viewers may already recognize from recent accomplishments in Greek cinema. The cinematographer, Christos Voudouris, also shot the eerie cult drama “Alps” from “Dogtooth” director Yorgos Lanthimos, who co-starred in this year’s sleeper hit “Attenberg” alongside “Alps” actress Ariane Labed, a member of the “Before Midnight” cast. “Attenberg” director Athina Rachel Tsangari — a producer of “Dogtooth” — also has a credited role in Linklater’s movie and co-produced it.
This is a fascinating melding of several proven talents. With “Dogtooth” and “Attenberg,” Lanthimos and Tsangari have made some of the most fascinating narrative experiences of the last few years by infusing awkward and unsettling physical situations with deeper emotional ramifications few filmmakers have the capacity to explore. That’s a welcome addition to the “Sunrise” franchise, which has already benefited from the remarkable alchemy of Linklater’s confident direction — in previous installments he has ceded much control to the raw performance and writing abilities of his two stars. After considerable acclaim for “Bernie,” a quasi-documentary, it’s obvious that Linklater remains one of the more inventive American filmmakers working today, so his allegiance to the “Sunrise” storyline is a good sign.
There’s also ample room for him to play around with the premise. When we last left Jesse, an established writer stuck in a collapsing marriage, and Celine, a passionate environmentalist, their future prospects remained as ambiguous as ever: Did Jesse miss his plane back to the U.S. and remain in Paris with the woman he has desired all these years? Could the two of them have formed a healthy relationship, or were they restricted to the isolation of heated, soulful exchanges every few years?
Whether “Before Midnight” answers these questions or presents new ones, it’s a sure-fire bet that the two romantic leads will have plenty to say worth hearing out.