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Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy—Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and now Before Midnight—occupies a particular place in the heart of its fans, many of whom share a roughly defined demographic berth with the movie’s stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. I know more than one couple who feel that their own romantic destiny is tied in some way to that of Céline and Jesse, the characters Delpy and Hawke have been embodying (both in the flesh and on paper; they’re credited as co-writers on the second two movies, and collaborated without credit on a rewrite of the first) for going on 20 years now. In the first film, they played a French student and an American slacker in their early 20s who fell in love over the course of an all-night train layover in Vienna. In the second, they were the same people meeting up again nine years later in Paris for one rushed, geographically impossible, and ultimately life-changing afternoon.
I’m not among those who fell into an identificatory swoon upon the release of Before Sunrise. I seem to recall thinking the movie was a pleasant enough romantic idyll, but something of a mainstream disappointment after Linklater’s daring first two releases, the post-narrative experiment Slacker and the sprawling high school epic Dazed and Confused. And there was also the Jesse problem: Hawke’s character, a callow, motormouthed man-boy, didn’t seem like someone with whom the high-strung but soulful Céline would want to spend an extended bus ride, much less the most important dusk-to-dawn stretch of her life. When the two lovers parted at the end without exchanging numbers, it seemed less like an act of star-crossed youthful folly than an implicit acknowledgement that sometimes what happens in Vienna should stay in Vienna.
But with the sadder, deeper Before Sunset, I started to change my mind about Céline and Jesse’s story, and to appreciate Linklater’s project in revisiting it. (I was also, like the protagonists, nine years older than the first time around, and perhaps more forgiving of both romantic movies in general and Ethan Hawke in particular.) Linklater may not have set out to make a decade-spanning triptych of poetic meditations on youth, young adulthood, and middle age, but he, Hawke, and Delpy have accomplished exactly that. The Before series has steadily gotten better as it goes along, which is more than any but the most optimistic among us dare to hope for from love.
As the third film begins, nine more years have passed. Jesse—who, it seems, did decide to miss that plane at the end of the last movie and stay with Céline in Paris—is now a well-known writer, largely for his tell-all romans à clef about he and Céline’s shared history. She, in turn, is an environmental activist on the edge of burnout, struggling to balance her idealism-draining job with the task of raising their young twin daughters. On the last day of their summer vacation at an older novelist’s villa on the Peloponnesian coast of Greece, Jesse and Céline are ferrying Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), Jesse’s high school-age son from his previous marriage, to the airport to return to Chicago, where he lives with his mother (who is never seen on screen but frequently reviled, especially by Céline).
On their last night in Greece, Jesse and Céline will have a long, Socratic outdoor dinner with their host and some friends, then take a long walk though an ancient village to the seaside hotel where two of those friends have treated them to a preplanned romantic evening—a room, a bottle of wine, a couples massage and, most erotic of all, a night of free baby-sitting. But as might be deduced from the rules of both romantic comedy and Greek tragedy, Jesse and Céline’s would-be booty call quickly devolves into one of the worst fights of their life together, a showdown so scathingly frank it may be their last.
The first hour, awash in lambent Mediterranean landscapes and close-ups of fresh-picked tomatoes, threatens to presage one of those lifestyle memoirs about middle-aged Americans finding themselves in Tuscany. But hang in there; though, like its predecessors, Before Midnight offers viewers the pleasure of vicarious travel, Eat Pray Love it ain’t. The long dinner scene is a joy to watch—Linklater, like his evident influence Eric Rohmer, knows how to stage an intellectual conversation with a light touch, and Delpy at one point launches into a dumb-blonde act that’s as delicious as the spread on the table looks. But the way in which each storyteller at the table reflects a different aspect of Céline and Jesse’s past, present, or potential future—the young couple newly in love, the recently widowed old woman, the congenially squabbling middle-aged friends—struck me as overly schematic. The other actors’ speeches feel written in a way that the vibrant, offhand one-on-one scenes between Hawke and Delpy don’t (though in fact, according to the actors and director, even the most apparently naturalistic exchanges were tightly scripted and rehearsed).
A masterful long take early on sets the tone for several more that will follow, and these takes constitute the movie’s dramatic skeleton. For what feels like a full 10 minutes or more, interrupted by only one cutaway shot, the camera holds on Céline and Jesse as they drive back from the airport, their sleeping daughters visible in the backseat. They make affectionate but pointed jokes about each other’s foibles, fake-fight a little, and grouse—she about a crisis at work, he about his sadness over seeing his son only at holidays. Nothing much seems to be happening, but at the end of those 10 minutes, the audience is fully briefed on all the major developments in this couple’s life, not to mention their respective fighting styles and vulnerable spots, without ever having been aware we were being brought up to date. Later on, as they wind down a rustic footpath to the hotel, the pair will be accompanied by a tracking shot that lasts almost as long as their meandering conversation.
In between stops to explore a thousand-year-old Byzantine chapel and watch the sun set over the Mediterranean, Jesse and Céline drift from blow job jokes to a morbid debate about which one of them will die first to a shared memory of a long-ago vacation ruined by the kids’ chicken pox—and later, an even longer-ago memory of a young man who once talked a young woman into getting off a train with him in Vienna. When they eventually reach that claustrophobic hotel room, what ensues isn’t a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style descent into the maelstrom of marital rage; rather, it’s passive-aggressive verbal combat in the Gen-X style, long on circuitous self-justification and defensive backtracking (with plenty of barbs that are both shockingly mean and laugh-out-loud funny). The audience’s sympathies cycle between the two partners; they would both, we realize, be tough people to live with, but in part because of our own long history with them, we can’t help but root for them to make it work.
In the movie’s last, heart-stopping scene, the tired, aggrieved fortysomethings those young lovers have somehow become sit at a café table, trying to understand how that past turned into this present, and whether or not it’s worth trying for a future. Before Sunset’s justly celebrated ending gave the last, ambiguous line of dialogue to Jesse. In Before Midnight, it’s Céline who gets the almost-as-sublime final word. I hope it’s not the last we ever hear from these two, and I suspect it won’t be. They always did love to hear themselves talk.