(Dir. Richard Linklater)
(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)
Nine years after sating the impassioned fans of modest 1994 indie darling Before Sunrise with its more heart-breaking counterpart Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke return to the franchise with Before Midnight, a natural, inevitable progression for this most magnificent of cinematic series. Set, just as the narrative spine, eighteen years since Sunrise, Midnight revisits the characters of Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) for another excursion in walk-and-talk existential intimacy, as these now-fully recognisable people muse about life, love and togetherness under the scrutiny of the pervading Greek sun.
After having witnessed the pair meeting – and quickly falling in love – as young adults wandering the streets of Vienna in 1995, and again seeing their belated reunion in Paris, 2004, where the spark of their initial encounter still rigorously lingered, Linklater (who once again co-writes the screenplay with his leading compadres) here confirms their union. Since Sunset left on an elegant cliffhanger, with Jesse anxiously twiddling his wedding ring as Celine bashfully, seductively mimicked Nina Simone in her apartment (“Baby, you are gonna miss that plane”), this third instalment finds the pair married and parents to two young girls, holidaying in Greece and at something of an impasse.
Jesse, who enjoys the fruits of his worldwide acclaim as a successful writer (his two previous novels fictionalised the events of the two preceding films), finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship with his teenage son, and ruminates about a possible relocation for his new family to Chicago to be closer to him. Celine, on the other hand, finds herself struggling both with Jesse’s narrativised treatment of their longstanding relationship and the expectations of her as a woman and depended-on mother, all the while considering a major career change. Whilst the beatific surface of their relationship remains intact, its beating heart grows weary and cracks start to materialise, and the couple find themselves contemplating their marriage and its rickety, unknowable future.
Where Sunrise was a more formalist excursion within the romance genre – though its inventiveness and enclosed, one-day progression stopped it from being too conventional, and Sunset took on a real-time approach to the depiction of Jesse and Celine’s meeting, Before Midnight is its own beast; its effectively five long, glorious scenes of the protagonists breaking down their life together and considering its numerous ups and downs. One of many jewels in the series’ crown is the searing, incredibly attuned and humanistic writing and delineation of its characters, and Midnight upholds this and remains as true to its own canon as it is to life. Jesse is still the buzzingly sanguine writer constantly thinking of outlandish stories and concepts; Celine remains the slightly pessimistic intellectual, irritated by a constantly diminishing world. Yet, whereas the opening two chapters were entrenched in illusory romanticism, the tone here is faintly darker as the simmering themes and various contexts of Jesse and Celine’s conversations take on restless, even drastic edges. Mature topics such as sex, parenthood and careers are explored, as are the permutations that lay in between.
There’s a reason why the film’s closing scenes – and, indeed, its title – are staged at the twilight of the day, where the sun gives way to darkness; its pivotal sequence, staged in a hotel room, charts the anger and frustrations of a prolonged argument. It is insular and claustrophobic, contrasting with the open-aired, flowing dialogue scenes before it, and building to an aching and beautifully organic climax that could lead to a fully justified fourth instalment. At a time where cinema is constantly being held up against television and accused of lacking the intricacies and intimacy of long-form storytelling, it’s invigorating to know that Linklater and co continue to break the mould by shaping and kneading their outstanding creation. Before Midnight is, of course, powerfully acted and extraordinarily well judged; a worthy successor to two perfect entries.