Back in 1995, I was not a fan of director Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, seeing it as a rather gooey wish-fulfillment fantasy in which Ethan Hawke and his scruffy goatee spend a chatty, wistful night in Vienna wooing an impossibly adorable French co-ed played by Julie Delpy. Maybe it was my then-resentment of Hawke’s Reality Bites-ish persona as the spokesman for my generation as a bunch of pompous windbags with poor hygiene and overextended library cards, or maybe I just hadn’t gotten laid in a while. Either way, I kind of hated it.
Nine years later, Before Sunset changed all that. On a book tour in Paris promoting a novel he wrote based upon that one enchanted evening, Hawke’s Jesse happened again upon Delpy’s Celine, and the two verbally danced around one another for 80-odd minutes of conversation fraught with sexual tension and aching regret. Where Before Sunrise seemed an over-idealized romantic illusion, 2004’s Before Sunset was an older and sadder tale about the toll such fantasies can take. Jesse’s miserable marriage and Celine’s string of broken relationships eloquently addressed the danger of over-idealizing that first movie’s magic moments. And yet, somehow Sunset was swooningly romantic at the very same time, ending with one of my favorite final exchanges in semi-recent films.
Good lord, has it been another nine years already? For folks my age—which is to say perilously close to the protagonists’—to watch that first film again is to wonder if we ever were so young and naïve. And so Before Midnight picks up exactly where it should: with all the previous pictures’ dreamy notions battered away by the grinding banality of day-to-day life. Celine and Jesse have settled down and become parents. There’s no more ticking clock structure, no more star-crossed schmaltz. As Judd Apatow tried (and failed) to illustrate last Christmas, this is 41.
We begin with Hawke dropping off his now teenage son at the airport, fumbling through an awkward goodbye, as the kid’s mom is still insanely pissed that Jesse missed that plane home from Paris nine years ago, just as Delpy predicted. Celine’s waiting in the car with their curly-headed, goldilocked twin moppets, and the family summer vacation in Greece is quickly coming to an end.
Before Midnight is the first film in the series where anybody else is allowed to talk, and Linklater almost bungles an early dinner in a Greek villa, owned by a patron of the arts who, for some reason, seems to think Jesse is a great novelist, despite the fact that his two best-sellers, This Time and That Time, were basically diary entries based on the movies we’ve already seen, and the constant confusion regarding their similar titles is Linklater’s slyest bit of self-mockery.
Couples spanning in ages from kids to the elderly offer their thoughts on relationships, and the initial reaction is to groan upon realizing that, since they’re all in Messinia, Linklater has provided an actual, honest to gawd Greek chorus. But Before Midnight quickly course-corrects, as these benefactors are taking care of the kids for the evening and have purchased Celine and Jesse an evening at swanky hotel room in town. For the first time in a very long time indeed, these two are going to be alone together.
This is what we paid for. You might have already noticed how all their bantering repartee at that dinner cut a little too close to the bone, and more than one joke landed with a thud. It’s fairly obvious that Celine and Jesse have some ongoing, serious shit that needs to get sorted. Now, finally freed from any distractions, it’s all coming out tonight.
Before Midnight is often hysterical, and there is no overstating the ease with which Delpy and Hawke—having inhabited these roles for almost 20 years, and both co-wrote the past couple screenplays—ease into a natural rapport that’s simply thrilling to watch. Linklater shoots it all in elegantly blocked long takes that go on and on and on. Celine’s and Jesse’s verbal sparring matches are as intricately choreographed as any car chase in a Fast & Furious sequel—and are equally as thrilling.
A bravura hotel room argument spans 30 minutes and outdoes Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, capturing the way that only somebody who knows you better than you know yourself can say the exact worst thing to cut you down to size. The gloves are off, and our sentimental history, given the past two pictures, makes it more suspenseful than a thriller.
Before Midnight is a movie about compromise and negotiation. The previous two pictures were preoccupied with romantic ideals, but this is the real love story. So funny and so wise, it’s about how happily ever after is harder than it looks. And Delpy’s last line still makes me smile every time I think about it.