As the third film in a series, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight might seem to require that the viewer has seen Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). While I’m sure that enriches the experience, it’s not essential to understanding or following Before Midnight. (People keep calling it a trilogy, but there’s no guarantee that this is the last entry.) Even though we’re 18 years into the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), the film wisely gives us enough background to work as a stand-alone experience. And for me, it’s easily the best of the three, but I’ve never been as keen on the first two movies as I’m supposed to be. Why then do I find myself embracing this one? It may be partly the good will that Linklater has generated in me with Me and Orson Welles (2008) and Bernie (2011), or the fondness I’ve developed for Julie Delpy through 2 Days in Paris (2007) and 2 Days in New York (2012). But I think it’s mostly that I just like Jesse and Celine better at 41 than I did when they were 32 or 23 — which may say more about me than them, and which is almost certainly the result of the aging of both the filmmaker and his stars.
Before Midnight largely eschews the pseudo intellectual prattle of the earlier films — or at least relegates it to the first part of the movie where it’s mostly shop talk about Jesse’s writing career and projects. (The film still presents us with two people for whom the mere prospect of making a living never really intrudes.) Instead, we’re presented with a couple who’ve been together for nine years, know each other too well, and find things fraying at the edges. The story opens with Jesse putting his son (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Moonrise Kingdom) on a plane back to his mother in Chicago after spending the summer with Jesse and Celine in Greece. Some of this is expository — dropping in the information that even after nine years Jesse’s ex-wife is harboring a grudge the size of Gibraltar. But it’s so shrewdly done that it doesn’t matter. This leads effortlessly into a long conversation between Jesse and Celine, done in an incredibly lengthy take, on their way home from the airport. Here, the film sets up the seed of the argument on which the rest of the movie is built.
Don’t misunderstand — although the final section of the movie is devoted to a painfully realistic fight (in real time) of the kind only possible between people who’ve been together long enough to know just where to stick the knife and when — Before Midnight is not one long argument. There is more here, including a too-long scene at a dinner party and a perfectly beautiful sequence where the pair wander through the village alone. But the argument of whether to move to Chicago to be nearer the son simmers beneath the surface of every scene until the inevitable explosion. It’s all deftly handled and feels completely authentic — and sometimes uncomfortably funny in its reality, especially when we glimpse ourselves in the proceedings. From the moment Celine and Jesse set off on their own to the film’s hopeful, but beautifully ambiguous final shot, there’s really not a false note.
Perhaps the only downside — if it can be called that — is that the performances and dialogue are so good that it’s quite possible to overlook what an elegant and fluid film Linklater has made with his sinuous, lengthy tracking shots that put the viewer completely in the movie’s surroundings. This is wonderful and wonderfully creative filmmaking that has a lot more to do with why Before Midnight works than might be immediately apparent. It would, in fact, be worth seeing the film twice just to look at this aspect. But in any case, see this movie. If you embraced the first films, it’s an essential. If you didn’t, it just might drive you to want to reconsider and revisit them. I’m certainly thinking about it. Rated R for sexual content/nudity and language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas and Fine Arts Theatre