It’s been nine years since we last met Jesse. The early signs of middle age are beginning to creep in: his face has aged; he’s developed a slight paunch. As he says farewell to his son Hank at a regional Greek airport after a summer of apparent familial bliss, we see the pain in his face. His son is growing up away from him, in the care of a woman he cannot trust. For a brief moment it seems like the paternal instinct might force Jesse to do something impulsive, like grab a ticket and fly home to America with his son.
But this is not the same Jesse who impulsively asked the beautiful stranger on his train to spend a day with him in Vienna back in 1995. This Jesse is older and wearier; the romantic and the realist in him share equal footing now. As we soon learn, the last time Jesse did something hugely impulsive – deciding to stay with his true love Celine in Paris back in 2004 – it cost him his marriage and a major role in his son’s life. Uncertain when he will see Hank again, Jesse leaves the airport and returns to his partner, the similarly time-stained but eternally beautiful Celine.
Thus begins Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s third film about the sprawling romance of Jesse and Celine. As with 2004’s entry in the series, Before Sunset, Linklater wrote the screenplay with the film’s stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Eschewing the walking city tour format of Before Sunrise and Sunset, Midnight finds the couple, together since the subtle fade out of the last film, taking a break from Paris in southern Greece. Writer Jesse is on retreat with other writers and finding it hugely productive for his work, which seems to have grown more mature and perhaps more pretentious in the past decade. Celine has been playing mother to the pair’s beautiful, accidental twins, and with her career as an environmentalist on the downhill she has become understandably bitter about being reduced to being little more than a “mom”.
Following the reintroduction of the couple in a lengthy car ride scene that echoes Abbas Kiarostami’s similar but more ambitious Certified Copy, Midnight becomes three extended set pieces that work superbly at dissecting Jesse and Celine’s relationship and, by extension, all relationships in today’s world.
In the first of these scenes, Jesse and Celine have supper with three generations of couples: a young pair, together only a year, who keep a long-distance relationship alive via Skype as if to taunt a young Jesse and Celine who never had such options; a middle-aged couple who remain young at heart by accepting their partners’ many imperfections, and; an elderly widow and widower who find friendship in one another and love in the memories of the departed. The scene is full of wit and gentle tragedy, and finally gives us a chance to see Jesse and Celine interacting with other people, both as individuals and as an item.
The second scene, visually reminiscent of the tour de force real-time filming of Before Sunset, is a series of steadicam shots following Jesse and Celine as they walk through a beautiful village, discussing their advancing years, their children, their grandparents and their future together.
The third finds them in a luxurious if uncomfortably modern hotel room where their teenage passions become interrupted by the pressures of life – where are they going as a couple?; what role can they play in Hank’s life?; what career can Celine have? As in all arguments, resentments from the past and previously resolved arguments rear their heads. Celine says that the trick to a good relationship is to let men win at “all the little games”, but she and Jesse reveal their relationship to be one huge contest – Who can show the other they love them more? Who has been more faithful? Most importantly, who has sacrificed the most of their self for the other? Happily ever after has never felt more impossible and true.
The dialogue is electric and believable for the most part, with some unfortunate blips as characters deliver nuggets of information already known by those around them purely to bring to the audience up to speed on the past nine years. In other parts Jesse and Celine tell each other important tales from their past, stretching plausibility that they have gone unspoken in a decade’s time.
The cinematography is breathtaking, and the cutting keeps the conversation lively. The only scene that suffers at all, and only slightly, is the argument in the hotel room, which loses its rhythm before its conclusion, while the spacious hotel room itself does not allow for the claustrophobic sensations of being cornered in such a confrontation to take root.
Hawke and Delpy have never been better, or more at home in their roles. Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick is briefly superb as Hank, while Peloponnesian local and cinematographer Walter Lassally (Zorba the Greek) gives a very moving performance as the couple’s host, Patrick. The beautiful if perhaps slightly overused score is a gentle reminder of what a simple human story this is.
With all the maturity that Before Sunrise lacked, Midnight is technically inferior to the monumental Before Sunset, but comparing the films seems pointless; they are one narrative, rolling forward. Whether we will meet Jesse and Celine nine years from now remains unclear, and they may not even be together then. For now this is a beautiful entry in the series with a superb understanding of how lovers interact and fight and manage to stay in love. If nothing else, it may have the finest last line to a movie since… well… Before Sunset nine years ago.