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Countries: USA, GreeceLanguages: English, Greek, FrenchBudget: $3,000,000 (estimated)
Before Midnight Reviews
You know those accusatory, ticking-time-bomb questions two married people aren’t supposed to ask each other? Well, after two previous installments of complicated bliss (in 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset), Celine (Julie Delpy) is going there on Jesse (Ethan Hawke). “What’s the name of the pediatrician?” “Would you notice me on a train now — like, right now?” Tell me you managed not to fuck the girl you met on your book tour!
That last one wasn’t a question. None of them truly are. But one of the glories of this movie is the way Celine expertly corners the slick man she’s now married, and how Jesse’s become an expert at evading capture. Another is the way Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater have managed to build a comedy around the creep of middle age and the way familiarity breeds not only contempt, but also security and insecurity. I’ve seen this movie three times, and each time I’m struck at the suspense in the film’s long, complete conversations, at how you’re able to laugh at the truth of what these two are still trying to do after meeting 18 years ago on a train, having an affair, and marrying.
Installment 3 finds Celine and Jesse (and their twin girls) at the end of a six-week Greek vacation. She doesn’t know what to do next with her career. He’s worried about his relationship with the teenage son he had during his first marriage. There’s a wonderful meal with some new friends and a night in a hotel room intended for romance. But we’re meant to see the other side of romantic comedy, the complex, frustrated, loving place real relationships wind up that the movies rarely confess to being aware of.
The film’s (re)watchability is a testament not simply to the wisdom imparted but to the dramatic musicality of its tone, the transparent rapport between the stars, and Delpy’s brilliant understanding that one key to playing matrimonial anger is to add a pinch of sarcasm to cut the sense of oppression. But Hawke is just as good at remaining cool while Delpy overheats. Both actors make you feel why each is good for the other. This is a universal X-ray of bourgeois love, one that in a few decades will get around to something like Amour. In the meantime, when Celine reduces male desire to “kissy-kissy, titty-titty, pussy, snore,” you don’t know whether to just say “Amen” or call a literary agent.
In Before Sunrise in 1995, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), both then in their mid-twenties, meet on a train and spent a night romantically wandering around Vienna, talking and talking, before perhaps making love. Jesse’s plane is leaving in the morning and they think they may never meet again, although they fix a rendezvous six months later.
In Before Sunset of 2004, Jesse, now in his early thirties, is reading from the novel he wrote about that night, This Time, in a bookshop in Paris when he glimpses Celine in the audience. The meeting they planned never happened. Again, Jesse has a plane to catch but they travel around Paris in the car supposed to be taking him to the airport, talking urgently and freely — Jesse reveals he is married and has a son — before ending up in Celine’s apartment. “Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane,” she says. “I know,” Jesse replies.
These are just lovely films, wonderfully romantic. They make so much from such deliberately limited scenarios — just a couple talking to each other over a few hours but always with the knowledge that perhaps their whole lives are in balance. For a certain generation of film-goers these movies are beyond precious in their own lives, huge investments.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy participated extensively in scripting their characters, alongside the director Richard Linklater. Now, nine years further on again, they are back, in their forties now, coping with present fulfilment as well as future potential, disappointment as well as hope.
In the terrific opening scene, we see Jesse awkwardly saying goodbye to his teenage son at Kalamata airport in Greece, the boy returning to his mother in America after a holiday. He says it’s been the best summer of his life but he doesn’t look back as he disappears to the gate.
The long second scene is even better, a really virtuoso piece of film-making. We see that Celine is waiting for Jesse in a car outside the airport, with their own small children dozing in the back. On the beautiful drive back to Kardamyli in one unbroken shot they talk and talk again so fluently (though it seems improvised, it is actually highly scripted) and we begin to understand what their relationship has become, to appreciate both how well they get on together still and the tensions between them: Celine frustrated about her career in Paris as an environmentalist, Jesse wondering if they shouldn’t move to Chicago to be near his son.
It’s one of the most convincing and charming representations of long-term coupledom you’ll ever see — even if the way the pair are still packing everything that matters in their lives into such nonstop gabbling feels much less realistic in this film than it does in the first two, when they knew they only had such a short time to connect.
A long central scene of a talkative lunch (filmed, by the way, in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house in the Mani, which he left to be used as a writer’s centre) is a little schematic and sententious, as the place of love in life is discussed representatively around the table. But as the film heads into the evening we’re back with just Hawke and Delpy, Jesse and Celine, so convincing in their parts, so very much themselves, ageing for real, annoying as well as delighting each other, that it makes what usually passes for the portrait of a marriage on screen seem hopelessly shallow and artificial.
For the film to work as well as the first two we need to fall a little in love ourselves with both Jesse and Celine, pretty much equally, all over again — perhaps not quite so easy as when they were both so young and gorgeous, although Celine’s claim to have become “a fat-assed middle-aged mom losing her hair” is preposterous.
But towards the end of the film, Celine’s feminist raging — “Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster!”; “It was an oven,” Jesse corrects her — unbalances our sympathies. It gets so nasty. “You like to have sex the exact same way every time,” she tells him. “When you got it, you got it,” says Jesse, still believing in his own charm. “You’re no Henry Miller on any level,” she retorts poisonously.
“You see anger as a positive emotion,” he realises — but still he tries to win her with his words. So much better written than contemporary novels, this film is a literary as well as cinematic achievement to cherish. For grown-ups
Jesse and Celine are now fortysomethings in this intimate and intelligent addition to Richard Linklater’s series about the couple, who now live in Paris with twin girls of their own
"How long's it been since we wandered around, bullshitting?" asks Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight. The answer, for my money, is way too long. This is the third movie in his series about a fateful romance between an American man and a French woman, Jesse and Celine, played by Hawke and Julie Delpy. I wish they could get together and do it every year, but of course the point is that life almost never allows you the leisure or the opportunity to do what they're doing.
Before Midnight is intimate and intelligent, and also undemanding in the best possible way, acted with charm and lack of ego, especially by Delpy: the story of people who have all the cares of middle age but somehow retain the idealism and curiosity of their youth. It's a secular, happier – if shallower – version of Rossellini's Journey to Italy, to which it explicitly alludes, having given cinephiles time to notice the resemblance for themselves. (When the last movie came out, Before Sunset, I discussed Linklater's debt to Annie Hall: in fact, Delpy occasionally, and fractionally, reminds me now of a Gallic Mia Farrow.)
Just as in the other two films (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), what is miraculous about Before Midnight is the talking. Not talking things out, or talking things through, just talking. Two or more people having a conversation somehow turns out to be as gripping as a thriller. The second scene of this film shows Jesse and Celine driving home from the airport: a scene that plays out, in one continuous take, for around seven or eight minutes. And what happens? Nothing, or rather everything. They talk about important things.
Jesse and Celine are now officially together: fortysomethings living in Paris with twin girls of their own. He is a celebrated writer with two autobiographical novels about his first and second meetings with Celine, entitled This Time and That Time. Celine is an environmental activist, demoralised about the backlash against wind turbines and is considering taking a job with the government. They are currently en famille, at a very agreeable writer's retreat in Greece, presided over by Patrick, an expatriate literary lion played in cameo by the cinematographer Walter Lassally. The couple, with nothing to do, walk around the countryside and local ruins, chatting; they even get a night away at a hotel while someone minds the children. Yet Jesse's enforced separation from Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), his beloved teenage son by his first marriage, threatens to undermine the couple's complicated happiness.
Tellingly, Jesse's new fictional directions are very different from the sexy personal stuff that made his name. He has in mind an Oliver Sacks-style project about a group of people with different brain disorders: one is plagued with eternal deja vu, another is cursed with a perfect memory for faces. The point of these people is that they are freed from the cause-and-effect world that binds people to the consequences of their actions.
They live in an unending present – and it was Jesse's daring grasp of the present moment that first sparked his affair with Celine. When he fantasises about carrying a message back in time from the 82-year-old Celine to her present self, there is a fascinating timeslip effect: the dreamy sense that this very movie might be a premonition they're having in 1994.
Delpy's Celine is still the woman with whom Jesse fell in love, but she has become more agitated by career disappointment and more self-consciously wry in satirical denunciation of her own failing beauty – Jesse gallantly disagrees – yet all this has made her funnier, more sensual. For his part, Jesse is hurt by Celine's anger at his new plans to keep in closer contact with Hank. The situation is acted out with terrific clarity and gusto by Hawke and Delpy, who wrote the screenplay with Linklater.
But could it be that all liaisons such as theirs are coloured by the thought that romantic love will always be conditional and compromised, compared with the feeling for those children that it brings into being? For me, the most quietly moving scene was the first: Jesse saying goodbye to Hank at the airport, returning to Chicago after a brief vacation with them all in Greece. No emotional demonstrations, just some hearty-grumpy advice about keeping up with music and team sports. Poignantly, Jesse asks Hank: "What's the first thing you're gonna do, when you get home?" Hank gives the question a baffled shrug. It made my eyes fill with tears, and I didn't realise why until hours after the movie: when I used to phone home during my first term away at university, my dad wistfully asked me the same sort of thing: what are you going to do, once you've hung up the phone?
This is a great end to the trilogy – if it is the end. As an organic experiment in collaboration between actors and director, it is a triumph, co-created and co-owned by Delpy, Linklater and Hawke.
"Before Midnight" delivers in the difficult ways it absolutely must: It is as good a movie as its predecessors, "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," which by now have practically achieved classic status. And it advances the characters, Celine and Jesse, in ways audiences can believe. Yes, these are the same people, but in different lives now, and in their early 40s.
The first two films were courtship dramas and wildly romantic. It might have seemed that all they did was talk, but they were seducing each other, and the question was always whether it would work, whether they would get together. For "Before Midnight," the same dramatic strategy is no longer possible. Now the question is whether they will stay together, and this makes for an entirely different movie, not just non-romantic but anti-romantic, a movie that can make an audience sad about what sometimes happens to lovers a few years down the line.
If you're among the people who want to know absolutely nothing about Celine and Jesse's situation going into "Before Midnight," it's time to check out of this review right now. ...
OK, they're gone, let's talk: Nine years have passed. Jesse is divorced from his wife and now lives with Celine. And they have adorable twin girls, who are 8 years old, the product of the union that commenced just minutes after "Before Sunrise" ended.
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is a successful novelist, with three books under his belt, the first two of which were thinly fictionalized versions of his romance with Celine. And Celine (Julie Delpy) is an environmental activist, who is considering taking a job with the government. When Jesse says she should take it, she is against it. When he agrees that she shouldn't take it, she is for it. So he backs off and tries to say nothing, and that, in essence, is Jesse's life these days.
Like its predecessors, "Before Midnight" takes place in a beautiful location, on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece, where Jesse and Celine are coming to the end of a long vacation. Jesse's son from his previous marriage, having spent the summer, has now gone home to Chicago, and Jesse wishes he could see more of him. Celine knows what this means — that Jesse, though he doesn't say it, would like them to move from Paris to the United States. This becomes a source of mutual contention and stress for the rest of the picture.
With other films, you can argue about the characters and be sure you're right, but in "Before Midnight," the characters are so complex that talking about them is like talking about real people.
In "Before Midnight" Celine has a legitimate fear and a legitimate grievance. She knows that, if Jesse has his way, she might soon be living in the United States, with either no career or at square one. She can also see that he has developed that distinctly male weapon of blithe reasonableness, designed to win through friendly seemingly disengagement. Understandably, she wants to shake him up, crack through his facade and get through to him.
But "Before Midnight" gives poor Jesse much to live with. Celine airs their dirty linen in public, mocks him sexually and belittles his talent. She's borderline rude to his fans and denies the foundational mythos of their love, that the two nights depicted in the previous films were fated and magical. Celine's default setting with Jesse is to act like he's an idiot — that his idiocy is so understood as to require no explanation.
If Celine isn't quite more trouble than she's worth, she is inches away. Millimeters. Yet that, in a sense, is part of the film's artistry. The drama depends on the audience's believing in this romance, and that it should continue, and yet the movie pushes that faith to the brink.
Thus, the delightful conversations of the previous movies have given way to arguments. But these arguments, long and convincing, are impressively written, and in their length and depth, unprecedented in American cinema.
Alas, yes, those romantic nights you envied have turned into the relationship you're so glad you're not in. Nonetheless, "Before Midnight" is fascinating to watch, and so long as Celine and Jesse are communicating, there's still hope.