For his third entry in the Before series, Richard Linklater has accomplished the unenviable task of presenting two familiar and sacred characters under a new light and context, with enviable cinematic results. Once more, the director has his characters hold our attention for another 90+ minutes, uninterrupted, and somehow leaves us for the third occasion wanting even more of the sight of them. Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine, in the years since first colliding aboard that fateful Vienna train in 1994, have become permanent fixtures ingrained in our collective filmic consciousness as the emblems of a love forged in actuality. Hopeful, flawed, forever fluctuating, the romance between the American boy and the French girl has evolved through lightly ambiguous steps, receiving admiration for its leisurely long takes, richly developing personalities and free-flowing dialogue that expresses character traits rather than outright detailing them.
But as love can blossom in real-time with such splendour, so too can its disintegration across an equal span strike an inverse chord in its viewer, of a brewing vexation, of writhing bubbles boiling to the surface. The long takes are back with a palpable unease in Before Midnight, tracking 41-year-old Jesse and Celine through the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, along open grassy paths graced by goats, down narrower cobble walkways and finally boxed into a deceptively paradisiac hotel suite for the film’s bruising third act. Have we yet witnessed these two locked in together for such an extended period of time? Now is not the time to start.
Another new ingredient here is the induction of Jesse and Celine into a larger gathering of individuals. The couple visit Jesse’s elderly novelist friend Patrick (Walter Lassally), with whom Jesse shares ideas for his future novels concerning themes of conflicting perceptions and repetition, having maintained the tendency to have his art mirror life’s small details. It’s when everyone gathers around the dinner table that the concept of Jesse and Celine as one being, instead of two interacting bodies as we are so accustomed to, is inferred and thusly signified as an inherently problematic proposition. This one scene almost belongs in a Mike Leigh or Woody Allen film, with its array of characters and couples portraying a multitude of possibilities and alternate fates to that of our central couple.
Henry, Jesse’s son from a previous marriage, is the unknowing spark that ignites the ticking time bomb (“Ticking time bombs don’t need a spark,” Jesse assures Celine) after he describes his summer spent with the couple as the greatest of his life. Jesse sends Henry onto his flight and subsequently ruminates on his hitherto failure as a father and whether a move to Chicago to be closer to his boy can rectify this shortcoming. The idea doesn’t sit well with Celine, on the cusp of a career move and not overly keen on moving their twin girls from France to the United States. Here begins a molehill, soon a mountain, and before long a simmering volcano.
Judd Apatow should be thankful that he at least didn’t have to follow this. The apparent ‘king of comedy’ dealt with a similar scenario in last year’s This is 40, starring Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann. Whereas that film operated as more of a gag reel, hitting all the major notes of familiar mid-life crises in a largely sexual mode, Linklater’s deft hand moves Before Midnight along with a gentle ease typical of the series so far, holding back the major bones of contention until organically amassed over the course of the narrative, venting them when the need arises and without a shock emphasis. To put it in gratuitously cinephilic terms: Apatow treats middle-age marital strife with an Eisensteinian instinct for emotional responses caused by successive, ‘shocking’ moments; Linklater is more Bazinian in his approach, glued to a natural progression of interaction and a compositional eye for space. So when his camera refuses to look away, neither can we, confronted with the unvarnished portrayal of what we still consider to be a ‘realistic’ relationship, under wholly new terms.
Not to air any dirty laundry in public, but I sat dumbfounded through the entirety of Before Midnight at just how closely a lot of my reality was being mirrored onscreen, almost word-for-word. And I’m only 25. I see a lot of myself in Jesse; his need to make light of everything, his tangential tirades over half-baked theories, and most of all, his writing profession. The key distinction lies in Jesse’s ability to have his novels published, though we share a common ground in our helplessly narcissistic consideration of ourselves and the effect it has on our loved ones. Just as Jesse’s art imitates his life, so too does this film mirror mine. I can but dream that, for me, the series will move into reverse gear, and that Midnight will regress toward a Sunrise.
An unabashed hypocrite, I hold up a cinematic object as a fantastic ideal – better this film romance than most others, I say.