By Eric Plaag
If you adore Celine and Jesse—the characters at the heart of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004)—with as much deep and abiding respect as I do, then I must caution you that the third film in Richard Linklater’s brilliant trilogy about love, identity, and the inexorable passage of time is not the easy celebration of true love that many fans might be expecting. It’s difficult to watch and—as with real-life love—often squirm-inducing. But this does not mean that it’s not a really fine and smart film.
In Before Midnight, another nine years have passed for Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke). We learn that Jesse stayed in Paris, as was suggested at the end of Before Sunset, and in the process the pair made a life and twin daughters together. All is not fairy-tale, domestic bliss, though, despite the film’s setting in the gorgeously mythic trappings of the southern Peloponnese, where the family is vacationing. When the film opens, Jesse is sending Hank—his teenage son from his first marriage—on a plane back to the States, and he is anguishing about the various forms of disconnect he feels with Hank. While his son assures him that he has just experienced the best summer of his life, Jesse worries about the effects of his perpetual emotional and physical distance from Hank. On their way back to the countryside villa, Celine and Jesse engage in one of their long, single-take conversations for which this trilogy is so famed. And as Jesse reveals his insecurities, a seed is planted, from which will grow what might be the most honest, realistic, and therefore immeasurably uncomfortable argument I have ever seen transpire onscreen between two characters who I have no doubt genuinely love one another.
The film turns on a masterful second act that reminded me throughout of Raymond Carver’s outstanding short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Over dinner back in the villa, where Celine, Jesse, and the kids have been staying with an elderly author friend (Walter Lasally) and his family, the group does exactly that, expounding on what it means to remain monogamous for a lifetime and how love sustains itself as bodies, interests, and desires change. A young couple there sounds much like the cynical Jesse of Before Sunrise, insisting that they know that their relationship is doomed to fail someday, so they do not bother with the pretense of saying or hoping otherwise. Their middle-aged counterparts—a Greek couple who quibble playfully but never disrespectfully, and dismiss their fighting over a kitchen knife as “negotiating” rather than arguing—warn ominously of the perils of trying to colonize one another. Their elderly hosts, meanwhile, counsel on the importance of remaining two people, responsible for one’s own interests and baggage, rather than trying to merge into one. The scene concludes with a wistful and unforgettable monologue from Natalia (Xenia Kalogeropoulou) about love, loss, and our desperate efforts to cling to the ephemeral while we are “passing through.”
Throughout this impressive second act, Linklater maintains the frenetic anxiety that made the first two films of the trilogy so successful; it’s the tone of that anxiety that’s different. Where viewers in Before Sunrise worried whether they would exchange names and agree to meet again, and in Before Sunset hoped that Jesse would miss his flight and stay, here there is the undercurrent of knowledge that the seed of discord from the first act is taking root and growing. A less observant viewer might be tricked into luxuriating in the delights of that Greek supper and their evening with friends, but all the while, Linklater allows Celine’s own securities to creep into the conversation. Jesse ogles women, she says. He’d be happier with a fawning bimbo, she insists. And, she claims, everyone they know believes that their lives are exactly like the two books Jesse has written based on their romance. Their dinner companions use her insecurities as the directional signals for their conversation, but for the careful viewer, her complaints seem too incisive, carrying pregnant weight that will soon have to be born. As Celine and Jesse walk away from dinner and into the third act, she hints at the problem: “I feel close to you, but sometimes…I don’t know…I feel like you’re breathing helium, and I’m breathing oxygen.”
Linklater’s long walking and talking takes appear on several occasions in the film, and while I understand why the tone of these crucial dialogues feels slightly different and more disjointed from those that appear in the earlier films, I was also aware that there are occasional lapses of contrivance that are not the characters’ doing but rather the script’s—scaffolding of a writer’s creation still left in place by accident when the project was finished. This problem is especially palpable in the transition between the second and third acts. For the most part, these moments are minor and only occasional, but they do serve to break the spell, reminding me that I was sitting in a dark and dank theater rather than watching two favorite friends talk privately.
I will not reveal how the third act unfolds, the ugly details and feelings that are unveiled by each, or whether Jesse and Celine will survive these rather substantial slights. What matters most is what the third act underscores about each character and the ways that they have changed from the youngsters who fell in love with one another eighteen years ago on a train to Vienna. The genius of Linklater’s film is that it pulls back the curtain on true love and is a master class on perception, miscommunication, the insecurities of middle age, the fears that grip us as we stand in the presence of those we love completely, warts and all, the merits of brutal, unmitigated honesty, and the dangers of taking all of that way too seriously. When it most matters, Jesse insists that he is giving (not “has given”) everything about his life to Celine, and I believe him. As Linklater ably illustrates with Before Midnight, though, true love—the real kind, not the conventional Hollywood, fairy-tale version—is about still giving all of that when we just don’t feel like it anymore. Not because we want to. Not because we have to. Simply because we don’t know what else to do.
4 out of 5 Stars, Theaters