Before Midnight (United States, 2013)

May 22, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Before Midnight Poster

Richard Linklater's Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) looks to be headed in the same direction as Michael Apted's Up series: an exploration of the human condition over the passage of time. When Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy made Before Sunrise in 1995, there was no thought that it would become an episode in something longer. It was intended to be a one-off movie and, as such, it was perhaps the most romantic film of the decade. The deliciously ambiguous ending, coupled with a genuine affection for the characters (both by the participants and those who saw the film), led Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy to revisit Jesse and Celine nine years later. Now, a second sequel allows us to see how the characters have evolved since 2004. Based on hints dropped by the filmmakers, it wouldn't be surprising for there to be a least one more Before (presumably in 2022) if not more than that. Given the ages of those involved, there's no reason we couldn't grow old alongside Jesse and Celine.

The three movies comprising the series as it currently stands all have different tones and intentions. The one similarity is that they're all verbose and thoughtful. These films are driven by dialogue, much of which has an improvisational feel. Richard Linklater's camerawork is simple and unobtrusive. He delights in long takes that allow the characters to interact naturally. The original Before Sunrise was scripted. The sequels came into being in a workshop fashion with Hawke and Delpy intimately involved in the writing process. They are collaborative efforts.

The Before movies show different phases of love. In Before Sunrise, it's a delirious, exhilarating immersion into the intensity of love-at-first-sight. It's undiluted romance, with two people desperate to dilate time as they revel in the moment. In Before Sunset, regret wars with optimism. With the clock ticking, Jesse and Celine attempt to reconnect and see if the spark that drew them together nine years earlier is still alive. The ending argues it may be. Now, in Before Midnight, we find something altogether different. Sunrise and Sunset gave us a nine-year gap in which Jesse and Celine were apart. Sunset and Midnight provide us with an equal gap except, in this case, they have spent the time together. Now, like any long-term committed couple, they are having trouble coping with life in each other's company. The Honeymoon Phase is long gone. They are discovering just how much hard work is involved in keeping a relationship in place once the giddy times are over.

The strength of Before Midnight is how real everything feels. The centerpiece conversation, a one-on-one between Jesse and Celine in a hotel room, is powerful and visceral because of its universality. It doesn't offer Hollywood's version of a husband/wife conflict. The ebb and flow of the argument is neither overblown nor underdone. As I was watching this twenty-odd minute sequence unfold, I was gripped by the unassailable feeling that I have lived this. The sense of verisimilitude is powerful. These are issues that every couple faces. These are how real-life fights start, climax, and perhaps finish. Scenes like this can be beginnings, endings, or something in-between. Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke understand this and keep us guessing. There's tension here about whether we're seeing the end of a relationship whose improbable beginning was told nearly twenty years ago.

There's also something in Before Midnight about how the passage of time changes us. When we first met Jesse and Celine, they were in their early 20s and unfettered by responsibility. In Before Sunset, the commitments of adulthood had begun to weight them down. Now, with both of them at age 41, they have twin girls. They struggle balancing careers and family, and things are especially difficult for Jesse, who is keenly aware that his role as an absentee father to a 14-year old son is causing him to miss out on a lot of important moments - moments he'll never get back.

Before Midnight can be loosely divided into two pieces. The first does something neither of the previous movies explored: having Jesse and Celine interact meaningfully with other characters. There's a 20-minute dinner sequence that feels like something scripted by Eric Rohmer (except that it's in English instead of French). Then, around the midway point, Before Midnight switches to provide us with nearly an hour of Jesse and Celine, walking and talking. This time, however, there's a sharper edge to their conversations. Tinges of bitterness and world-weariness infect the phrases. These are still recognizably the people we met at 23 and revisited at 32, but they're different as well. The romance in them has been replaced by practicality. Age and familiarity have done their dispiriting work. There's nothing surprising about this except that it's such a rare thing for a movie - any movie - to acknowledge.

As Vienna was a supporting character in Before Sunrise and Paris was more than just a location in Before Sunset, Greece fills a similar role here, although the loving views of the rich landscape are limited with the final quarter of the movie transpiring in a hotel room. The settings have never defined the action in the Before movies but they lend color to the proceedings. Just as the events in Before Sunrise could never have occurred if both participants weren't in a foreign locale and things couldn't have transpired as they did in Before Sunset if Celine wasn't at home, so Before Midnight once again demands a place of limited familiarity.

Delpy and Hawke know these characters. It's tempting to wonder how much of the material here is autobiographical. The actors are so convincing that it's tempting to see a blurring between fact and fiction that may not exist. Physically, the years have been kinder to Delpy than to Hawke (or at least that's how it appears on screen). She's much the same - a little older, obviously, but still attractive and capable of radiance when she smiles. He wears the time more roughly, although that could have something to do with the grooming and haircut. Still, Hawke's face looks more lined and careworn.

For this series, the titles have predicted their tones. Before Sunrise is easily the lightest and most optimistic. As with all love stories, it's a fantasy. Before Sunset interweaves the remnants of that fantasy with more concrete concerns. Before Midnight is a darker movie. The fantasy has evaporated. This is a more intense and at times unsettling experience. In the end, however, there's still room for hope and optimism. But the relationship of Jesse and Celine is never going back to where it once was. That's the thing about sequels. By advancing the characters and their relationships, the added layers of complexity may take the story in unforeseen directions.

Jean-Luc Godard famously stated that "The cinema is truth at 24 frames per second." Often, when faced with overproduced blockbusters and special effects laden mainstream fare, it's easy to forget that. It takes something like Before Midnight to remind us of what "truth" means. It's a delicate thing, easily missed either in whole or in part. There's nothing wrong with escapism; I love many escapist motion pictures. But it's a rare and powerful thing to confront something honest and real on the big screen. It stays with you in a way that nothing else can. Before Midnight is fiction but it might as well be a documentary.

Before Midnight (United States, 2013)

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Screenplay: Richard Linklater & Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy
Cinematography: Christos Voudouris
Music: Graham Reynolds
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Ranked #70 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2013-05-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In English, Greek, and French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1