As we reach the (alleged) last film of “the lowest-grossing film trilogy in history,” as described by Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight, we have seen a relationship from almost every angle. Jesse and Celine have gone through twenty years of life since Jesse spotted her on a train in 1994. Back then, he was a young writer looking for romance. She was a young French woman in need of a distraction.
Before Sunrise, the first film in the trilogy, is all about a young person’s romance. It was written and directed by Richard Linklater, perhaps the most versatile director this side of Steven Soderbergh working today, and it worked as a perfect bridge between his mainstream fare (Dazed & Confused, School of Rock) and his more experimental offerings (Slacker, Waking Life).
The film is a long series of conversations and romantic situations. The whole thing feels like a dream, or the written work of a young man trying to emulate his vision of James Joyce. The conflict is that time is slipping away. That the future is too grand for commitments to be made. There’s too much that hasn’t happened yet.
The sequel, Before Sunset, was produced ten years later, in 2004, and still stands as the most technically ambitious of the three movies, even as it tries to convince the audience that it’s the simplest.
Before Sunset takes place in real time. The only film of the three to do so. It follows Jesse, who is on a book tour to promote a book he wrote about his experiences with Celine. Celine catches up with him at the bookshop he’s visiting, and the two have a long conversation before he has to board his plane at sunset.
It’s a simple concept shot simply, but that’s exactly where the ambition lies. Since the film takes place outside, in real time, on a sunny day in Paris, Linklater was forced to shoot the long takes at exactly the same time every day in which the sun came out. The shoot was tedious for this reason, and the later shots, if not done perfectly during the “magic hour” of afternoon, had to be completely scrapped and shot again the next day.
The tedium, thankfully, does not carry over to the final product. For years, I’ve hailed Before Sunset as one of the best movie sequels of all time, and as one of the best examples of a film ending perfectly. It’s open-ended and sweet.
Before Sunset is so good, so romantic in every way, that I had a very hard time accepting that Linklater was intent on producing a third movie.
“They’ve already met accidentally twice” I thought. “How many times can they run into each other?”
But then I read that the two had gotten married. That they’d had twins. That the movie was going to focus on a single night in their lives where things weren’t going so well. What happens when the “perfect” couple loses the energy of a great conversation?
I had to admit that I was interested, even if the third film’s plot lessened the impact of the second film’s fantastic ending.
I went into Before Midnight with the hopes that Linklater would somehow deliver something both new and familiar, which is, admittedly, an unfair expectation.
Fortunately, Linklater somehow delivered not only a worthy continuation of the story, but perhaps the best chapter.
Before Midnight is a very different film. There’s several speaking roles. People other than Jesse and Celine are fleshed out and characterized in one of the best dinner scenes I’ve ever in a film.
Jesse and Celine have been staying at a beautiful Greek villa for six weeks with three other couples, where the men, writers, have had a chance to sit around and talk about their ideas for books.
We learn that Jesse wrote a book chronicling the events of the second film, much to Celine’s disapproval (the book apparently revealed graphic depictions of Jesse and Celine’s sexual relationship).
He’s working on more experimental stuff now, but it’s not nearly as beloved. Celine has put her professional ambitions on hold for their twins, but not without harboring significant resentments.
The film begins with Jesse putting his son on a plane going back home to Chicago. Jesse’s upset that he can’t spend more time with his son, who is now heading into high school.
As Jesse thinks out loud, Celine takes Jesse’s sadness as a hint that he wants to move to Chicago, uprooting the family in the process.
“This is how it starts,” she says. “This is how relationships end.”
What follows is a ninety minute dialogue between two people who are no longer hopeful, admiring strangers, but deeply intimate partners.
They’re not telling each other new stories. They’re not talking about obscure articles they read on subjects. They know each other too well to surprise one another anymore.
Jesse seems to love the evolution of their partnership, but Celine feels trapped. She no longer admires the young writer she fell in love with.
Linklater’s film isn’t as technically ambitious as the previous installment, if only because it doesn’t take place in real time, but he has injected the film with such a warm visual style, and such a minimalistic cinematic perspective, that it’s impossible to not be sucked in.
The camera makes Greece the most gorgeous place on Earth, which makes the resentments and the conflicts between the couple feel all the more uncomfortable. This film takes very real marital struggles and displays them with the kind of honesty that some people might find alarming.
The film can be funny, of course, but this is by far the darkest entry in the series. Couples who are having similar issues will leave this movie feeling very uneasy about what might follow the screening.
But unlike Blue Valentine, another movie that features a hotel room argument for half its runtime, Before Midnight believes in the magic of partnership. Jesse and Celine are progressive, forward-thinking adults who are educated, worldly, and realistic about the world, but they still haven’t killed that romantic spirit that carried in their youths. They believe in soul mates. They believe that some loves do last forever.
They just can’t handle the idea that their love might not be one of those that lasts forever.
Before Midnight is a brilliant, beautiful film that follows characters we have grown to love over the past twenty years. And I can assure you, the last ten minutes of this film will move you more than any other film you’ve seen this year. You have my word.