After the guy gets the girl and the screen fades into the credits at the end of a movie, that’s it; you can only imagine if they stay together forever or call it quits sometime down the road. In Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third film in the ‘Before Sunrise’ trilogy, the guy and girl stayed together, had kids, and now are maneuvering through all of the problems of middle age every one in the audience is going through as well.
In 1994’s Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) spent an entire night walking around Vienna, falling in love, and vowed at the end to meet again six months later. Not too many of us in the theater can relate to that. In 2004’s Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine meet up nine years later and spend the entire day walking around Paris falling back in love. Nope, not too many of us are identifying with that either.
But in Before Midnight, they have been together for nine years and are building resentments, annoyances, and their fair share of grievances. Everybody can relate to this. Nobody on Earth has the conversations that Jesse and Celine have. They hop easily from subject to subject, never stumble into so much as an awkward pause in conversation, and still share new and interesting stories with each other even after having been together so long. A lot of these conversations feel improvised between Hawke and Delpy. They know their characters so well now after playing them in three films, they know exactly what they will say in particular situations.
Hawke and Delpy talk on and on as the slowly stroll towards a retreating camera in noticeably long takes. The scenery is always a supporting character in these movies and this time they are vacationing in the South Peloponnese in Greece. The camera watches the sunset, lingers on ruins, and unlike its previous brothers, settles into a hotel room for a relationship-defining fight. This choice is an abrupt departure from the usual café, garden, and sidewalk settings.
The ‘Before Sunrise’ films are extremely wordy but not overly verbose. I like listening to these two banter back and forth. In Before Sunrise, it was too easy to sit back and watch two 23-year-olds sort of show off for one another. In Before Midnight, it feels like work now as Jesse and Celine. There is an extremely long argument with accusations being hurled back and forth that makes us feel like kids wishing our parents would stop fighting. Jesse and Celine know each other’s buttons and how to effectively poke them.
In 1994, there would be no reason to imagine a 41-year-old Jesse with three kids and a chronic, simmering tension with his wife. Revisiting him so many years later is at once comforting to check-in on an old friend, but also disconcerting. We have grown older along with Jesse and Celine and have settled into routines that we swore would not happen when we were in our early-20s. Linklater based these characters on himself and a girl he met while travelling through Philadelphia and walked around with all night. It’s only natural that at some point, Jesse and Celine stop walking around and start building a life together which gets messy and complicated.
Before Midnight is an extremely rare example of a Chapter 3 after boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. Now it’s boy argues with girl concerning domestic chores, child rearing, and work-life balance. Jesse and Celine are brutally honest with one another to a point where most couples could not recover. However, most couples do not have philosophical sparring matches about the nature of the self or the perception of time that our two protagonists nonchalantly throw back and forth at each other at will.
The three films of the ‘Before’ trilogy are Gen. X’s romantic arc. Jesse and Celine were laid back and aloof, edged a bit more towards serious matters, and end up hurling verbal daggers at each other in and around an ancient Greek landscape. It can be hard to watch, but we are so invested in these characters by now we’ll take what we can get after every nine-year break.
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy