Opening shot: two pairs of feet – casually, slowly walking. Is there anything that could sum up Richard Linklater’s “Before” series more?
For the uninitiated, Richard Linklater’s masterful “Before” trilogy – including 1995’s “Before Sunrise”, 2004’s “Before Sunset”, and now 2013’s “Before Midnight” – is a continuing series of romantic dramas that were produced and take place nine years apart from one another. Consisting entirely of dialogue, each film in the series depicts only one day in the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as they grow from strangers on a train, to lovers, to parents. Each of the first two films notoriously end ambiguously, leaving a question posed twice: “Will they be together in nine more years?”
It is with the anticipation of this question that the first shot of casually wandering feet holds such importance. “Is it them?” As the camera tilts up to reveal the owners of these anonymous feet in just the first of many powerful connections that form between filmmaker and viewer in a passion-project like this, “Before Midnight” takes off on ride that is as unexpected as it is spiritually at home within the series.
Actors Hawke and Delpy return again to elaborate on their singular, infinitely entertaining give-and-take performance as the most interesting conversationalists in the genre. “Before Sunrise” saw them in their youth, discussing life and love and the broad future ahead of them. We then met them a decade later in “Before Sunset” as they have become adults, and their conversations tilted more towards the philosophical and the political. Now, caught up to present day, Jesse and Celine are middle-aged and dealing with issues such as parenting and leaving behind notions of youthful bliss.
The toll of time on their relationship is quickly made evident, as their initial conversations in the film (including an impressive take of dialogue stretching over ten uninterrupted minutes) feel laced with an edge of irritation that was never there in the past. They aren’t dealing with the promise of love anymore but rather the weight of dealing with that love once it’s arrived and how time can fade the strength of it.
We catch up with them on the final night of a vacation in the southern Peloponnese. Up until this point, Jesse and Celine have been staying at the home of a popular writer and his family – invited thanks to Jesse’s success as a novelist. For their last night in Greece, they are given by the family a night’s stay at a nearby hotel – a chance to relive the freedom of their younger years if only for one night.
No longer able to engage in such acts of spontaneity, Jesse and Celine set out to the hotel with eagerness walking and talking – even noting something like “How long has it been since we did this? Nearly a decade?”
While the previous entries in the series have shown the hopeless swooning of destiny and love, it will likely disturb some fans of Jesse and Celine to see a vastly different tone in “Before Midnight”. Just as honestly as “Before Sunrise” portrayed the early stages of attraction, “Before Midnight” attempts to bring authenticity to the ugly parts of a relationship – the parts that can end in terrible words being said over an issue that quickly becomes distorted and unclear by the storm of passion and egos. This new view of Jesse and Celine may not be as easy to love as when they were smitten, but it is no doubt the logical and appropriate place for their story to go.
In addition to a tonal shift, “Before Midnight” is the largest film in the series. One of its great accomplishments is finally allowing Jesse and Celine to talk to other people. One of the best scenes in the film covers a dinner party at the home that they are staying in as the eight friends jest over commitment, sex, technology, and love – sharing anecdotes and insights. These conversations bring out moments substantially more humorous than anything found in “Sunrise” or “Sunset”, and are a very welcome relief from the other, darker portions of the film.
Fed in piece by piece to the conversations between Jesse and Celine throughout the film are bits of information about the past decade of their lives. These are brilliantly told not through exposition in the opening sequence, but patiently throughout the length of the film. What’s most inherently unique to “Before Midnight” within the series is the lack of a discernable endpoint. There’s no train or flight to catch first thing in the morning to drive the plot towards a definite conclusion. There is no acknowledgement inside of the narrative that midnight is even an important marker, and this makes the film’s title linger in your mind while you’re watching it – knowing that midnight will in fact become crucial to the ending.
In the end, we are left with equal enjoyment to the previous two films if not quite the same emotional pay-off. As to which of the three is the best – that really will depend on the perspective of the viewer. Not one of these three films is any less exceptional than the other; coming back to these characters will always be a delight. As the content of our brief encounters with Jesse and Celine have become more mature and enriched from life experience, so have the characters. From the first close-ups of the actors it is clear they are physically older than we have seen them in the past. This reminder that it really has been nine years and will be another nine before we may be able to visit them again raises the stakes tremendously.
Each addition to the series risks the damaging of the modest, endearing cult legacy of the previous films. It is with that eye for risk and reward that Linklater and co-writers Hawke and Delpy have crafted “Before Midnight” – yet another triumphant, soul-stirring experience. I’m already waiting for 2022.
Review: Before Midnight