Article By: Dan Clark
Richard Linklater’s Before series of films have a unique connection with their fans that most films could only dream about. Some have grown up with the characters of Jesse and Celine since their first romantic connection in Vienna nearly twenty years ago. Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and now Before Midnight are this perpetual reflection of how our perception of life and romanticism shifts as we grow older. Those who have experienced this series of films in real time can relate on a multitude of levels. Those, like yours truly, that are late to the game can still develop an internal connection due to the universality of what is being covered. That’s not to say they are for everyone. They are centered completely on two people walking around an European city conversing on the philosophical quandaries of life. If that has your pretentious stamp at the ready you may want to steer clear, but if you are willing to accept the structure you are in for quite an experience.
Linklater’s latest installment Before Midnight continues the story of Jesse and Celine seven years after the events of Before Sunset. We can now rest easy knowing that in fact Jesse and Celine have chosen to spend their lives together, though this does have more of an edge than you may be expecting. It is as if life has beaten these characters down so much their once whimsical relationship has turned into one of regret and loathing. Obviously the love is still there. It has just become more complex with the complications of life. There was a lot of anticipation going into this film. Some feared it would answer a question that was better left ambiguous. Others felt it could never live up to the lofty expectations. Somehow Linklater, Ethan Hawk, and Julie Delpy pulled it off by making what could be the best installment of this impromptu franchise yet.
Before Sunset’s ending gave a strong indication that Jesse and Celine would finally get together. Before Midnight verifies that theory as they are now together with two children. Life is not necessarily happily ever after however. Jesse is struggling with not being a big enough part of his son’s life. With his son residing in Chicago and him living in Paris they only see each other on occasion. The film opens with an awkwardly brilliant scene of Jesse saying farewell to his son at the airport. It gets to the crux of what makes these films work so well—simple moments with genuinely written dialogue. You are also able to read what they are not saying to each other through their body movements. The emptiness on Ethan Hawk’s face when his son leaves speaks volumes, and that moment becomes vital as the film progresses.
While this is the first time we get to see Jesse and Celine really communicate with other people, the main focus is still on their relationship. Linklater uses these two characters as his own personal surrogates. One way in particular is answering criticisms he knows are bound to come up. Those who complain about the overabundance of walking and talking will be pleased with how static Linklater made his camera. Early on in the film we see one long continuous shot of Jesse and Celine driving through Greece’s countryside. Not only is its technical execution impressive, it also shows how natural these actors feel in their roles. Their communication is the zenith of sincere dialogue. Nothing ever comes off as an act. It is this intense connection that has made these films work so well.
The intensity of this connection has shifted focus to some degree. At first Jesse and Celine seem like their familiar old selves. Pontificating on their lives and the way our society works. Some of their more lofty conversations that were once the norm do feel out of place here. They came off as dialogue for dialogue sake—as if Linklater was playacting to his fans’ expectations. One aspect that was also jarring—in a good way—was seeing Celine and Jesse have to communicate with other people. There is an amazing dinner scene that puts every Olive Garden commercial to shame. Characters participate in this intelligent discourse that is so rare today. Seeing Jesse and Celine in this setting is a reminder of why those characters are such a delight to watch.
After the dinner they get the opportunity to finally spend a night alone. What should be an opportunity for welcomed relief takes a rather drastically negative turn. A lot of the issues that were building up throughout the film finally come to a boiling point. Watching them say truly hurtful things to each other was devastating. It was like seeing that couple you were sure would make it fall apart before your eyes. This is an experience that can leave you emotionally wrecked. Celine did come off as more of the villain in these moments. Her inability to sympathize with Jesse’s plight as a father seemed rather extreme. To be fair that reading can say more about the person watching than the movie itself. There are a million different ways to read what is occurring, and that is part of this film’s beauty.
Another trope with this series has been the scenic strolls through picturesque European backdrops. Here most of the third act takes place in a drab characterless hotel. Similar to their relationship it holds no mystery. This narrowed room amplifies everything that is on screen as they become confined in this claustrophobic location. Ethan Hawk and Julie Delpy‘s performances are once again top notch. At this point they have become inseparable from their characters. There is so much intimacy with their portrayals it is evident the issues they are dealing with come from a very personal place. So many films out there, especially those that deal with relationships, are unable to convey reality in their real life issues. Everything here is the epitome of how to use true life in a fictional setting. You remove all the superficial obstacles to become fully authentic.
Although Before Midnight has a more cynical tone then the other films, there is still a passion here that is undeniable. There are challenges along the way that test every fiber of your being, but you work through it because in the end it is worth the effort. Linklater, Delpy, and Hawk have melded their life experiences into a narrative full of personal insight. Before Midnight continues the tradition of ending at the perfect moment. If seven years down the line we revisit these characters again it would be a welcomed return. If another installment was never to come out it still leaves you at a satisfying place–still wanting just a little more.