Rarely in the world of cinema does a romance come along and touch you in a way that can’t be explained. Rarely does one relate to you or your ideas of a perfect love while still remaining grounded enough to avoid the fairy tale expectations society has associated with it.
Director Richard Linklater’s enchanting 1995 film, “Before Sunrise,” managed to do just that. It was a simple film, one where Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a train in Europe and decide to spend the night together strolling around Vienna and sharing stories about their lives, but it was nonetheless wonderful. The two characters connect not just on a physical level, but on intellectual, spiritual and emotional levels as well. The movie portrayed the type of magical night we all wish we could have, even if it is fleeting.
Such was the case with Jesse and Celine and when sunrise came, Jesse had to leave, the film ending on an ambiguous note that kept the viewer wondering if they would ever see each other again. That question was answered in 2004 with the blissful follow-up, “Before Sunset,” and again, the film ended on a hopeful, but not exactly final, note. Now another nine years have passed and we have “Before Midnight,” and it’s almost as good as its predecessors. Considering that it’s following two of the greatest romances ever put to screen, that’s really saying something.
The beginning of the film confirms it. Jesse and Celine are together now and have two beautiful twin girls. Jesse has moved to Europe, leaving his 13 year old son, who has just hopped a plane to head back to the states, behind. They’re in Greece for a quick getaway and, thanks to some friends who agree to watch the twins, they have the entire night to themselves. However, it has been nearly two decades since they first met and one since they decided to be with each other, so that fairy tale romance has long since passed.
Their lives are more complicated and Jesse pangs to be with his son, especially during this time of his life where he’ll be discovering his sexuality and meeting girls. As he puts it, in another four years, he’ll have graduated high school and the chance to connect will be gone. He’ll be an adult. Celine, on the other hand, has a wonderful opportunity with a potential government job and doesn’t want to move to America, despite her love for Jesse’s son. Naturally, this leads to argument.
If the previous two movies explored the love that can form between two people, “Before Midnight” is about the potential destruction of it. It answers the question that cynics wonder and romantics try to avoid at the end of a romance: what happens after the movie ends? Over time and in real life, the bond that was so strong before begins to weaken and it’s only natural for someone to wonder if they really love this person anymore. This movie explores that in-depth and, though it isn’t always pleasant, it’s always truthful. The pent-up frustration Jesse and Celine have been carrying around all come bubbling to the surface and hurtful things are said, things that threaten to end a relationship that looked so perfect all those years ago.
But hidden within the fighting are philosophical themes that contemplate life, love, the inescapableness of time and the finite nature of all things. Jesse and Celine both realize that they’re getting old, perhaps closer to their deaths than their births, and such a notion puts things into perspective. Have they lived their lives the best they can? Have they done all they can to care for their children? Are they really happy with each other or has their attempt to recapture the feeling they felt that night in Vienna all those years ago fooled themselves into thinking they are? Much like the previous movies, there’s no clear answer (only another sequel will be able to shed some light), ending with a scene that feels hopeful, but not definite.
All of this is done with an exquisite sense of direction, one that refuses to overcomplicate things and decides to keep it simple despite its non-simplistic themes. Much like the previous movies, Linklater more often than not settles on long takes, effectively placing the viewer in the scene with the characters. It doesn’t cut back and forth in the typical filmic shot reverse shot based on who’s talking, but rather places them both on camera, allowing them to play off each other in a seemingly less scripted way, whether they be walking down the road or driving in the car.
These long takes only work with actors that can pull them off and both Hawke and Delpy do so with aplomb. Although they’ve only worked with each other across the three movies for what couldn’t be more than a couple months, it nevertheless feels like they’ve been in each other’s minds and lives for the two decades these movies span.
It may sound strange to hear, but it’s no exaggeration to hail this romance trilogy as one of the best ever. To give that statement some context, this film doesn’t quite live up to the standards of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” yet it’s still likely to be one of the best of the year. “Before Midnight” is nothing less than a majestic, ethereal treat.