Love is not perfect for Jesse and Celine. It lacks the romance that first sparked it when the pair met in 1995's Before Sunrise, and it lacks the instinct that reignited it during their not-so-random reunion in 2004's Before Sunset. And in Before Midnight, the third of Richard Linklater's exquisite trilogy, they're forced to question whether or not it can survive the erosive power of time. No, love is not perfect for Jesse and Celine. But it is real. And as in the two films that preceded it, that realism is what makes Before Midnight such an insightful and compelling drama.
For newcomers to this infrequently updated series, viewing the first two movies isn't necessarily required to appreciate the authentic conversation and naturalistic performance which the trilogy has built as its defining characteristic, but it does provide important context. The lovebirds first spent a romantic night in Vienna after a chance encounter on a train in 1994, but then fell out touch. They rendezvoused nine years later in Paris, where Jesse gladly let a plane ticket back to America burn a hole in his pocket, ultimately leaving behind an unhappy marriage but beloved son so he could stay with his “soul mate”.
We catch up with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) nine years after that fateful evening, now a couple with twin daughters and a slew of new anxieties and challenges that they probably never dreamed they'd have while they were making love beneath the stars 18 years ago. They're wrapping up a summer vacation in Greece's scenic Peloponnese, having dinner with friends before strolling the coastal cliffs to a romantic hotel room. Unfortunately, unlike their spontaneous affair in Vienna, this isn't some enchanted evening.
Seeds of dissension are already being sewn early on in the day. Jesse, feeling guilty about his son growing up in the States without a father, is tempted to uproot and move his new family there. Celine, discouraged by failure in her environmentalist efforts, is tempted to take a job she would have sneezed at years earlier. And even though their armed-and-ready senses of humour ensure that they're always able to laugh off the disagreements, there's a lingering sense that those wits could turn caustic.
His passive aggression clashes with her paranoia in bouts of quarreling that become increasingly less subversive as their night degenerates from sideways glares to heated rows. Painful history is dredged up, accusations levied, and it occurs to both of them that the love they shared may have slowly disappeared like the setting sun. But at the end of the day – literally the end of the day, as the title ominously implies – will either of them be able to walk away from the other?
The key virtue to Before Midnight is the honesty of its writing. Collaboratively work-shopped by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, it dispassionately but perspicaciously strips away the soul mate myth from the original romantic premise of Before Sunrise and presents a worldly couple more genuinely relatable to audiences who understand how relationships work in the real world. As beautifully put by a wise old professor reminiscing about his late wife at their dinner party, “We were always two people, not one. And we preferred it that way.” Their work on the page here is arguably even richer than their Oscar-nominated screenplay for Before Sunset, and merits serious consideration for not only another nomination, but possibly the win.
Indeed, Jesse and Celine have always been two distinct personalities, and even though they click so well together (to which their epic conversations can attest), it's clear that they also have divergent wants and conflicting needs. In its exploration of the sometimes tedious, sometimes unpleasant, but always necessary give-and-take of meaningful partnerships, Before Midnight is as much a movie about what it takes for true love to endure in an increasingly pragmatic and disenchanted society, as it is a movie about two middle-aged parents wondering what happened to that long extinguished spark.
**** out of ****