The team of Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy and Richard Linklater has done the impossible and made us fall in love with two fictional characters three times in a row, for completely different reasons. When Celine (Delphy) and Jesse (Hawke) first met in 1995’s Before Sunrise, we watched two idealist twenty-somethings gradually fall in love in front of the romantic backdrops of Vienna. In 2004’s Before Sunrise, they dealt with the regrets of their youth through a magical walk around Paris. That film had one of the best final shots of any movie of that decade.
Now they’re in their forties and what we wished to happen for eighteen years have finally happened. Jesse and Celine are finally an item, with a pair of twin daughters to boot. The backdrop this time is the gorgeous Greek countryside. As romantic as the location might be, Jesse and Celine are going through another set of problems. They matured as human beings, and those of us who grew up with them matured alongside.
Watching these films make me feel like how people who were born around the same time as the subjects in Michael Apted’s 7Up films must experience every time a new chapter is released every seven years. Each new film probably gives them an opportunity to check back with their peers every seven years and to personally reflect on that time spent within their own lives. With the Before series, every nine years we catch up with Jesse and Celine while thinking about how far we’ve come within our own feeble existence.
This time the problems are less tied up in romantic idealism but more practical, more adult. Jesse wants to move to Chicago to spend more time with his son, who lives with his unreasonable mother. Meanwhile, Celine wants to take a job that would propel her career forward, even if it might turn into a miserable experience. At the end of their impromptu six-week vacation in Greece, their friends buy them a night at a hotel as a goodwill gesture but instead of turning into a romantic getaway, the night forces them to deal with their issues.
That, in a nutshell, is the entire plot and honestly, we don’t need anything else. Director Richard Linklater, who helmed the previous two entries, cleverly employs the same visual approach he adopted in the last film, which is to basically turn the camera on and let Delphy and Hawke do their thing. Their first scene together is a single shot in a car. The shot must have run for almost ten minutes as Celine and Jesse catch us up on their lives since Before Sunset.
Watching that shot and comfortably settling into the excellent chemistry between these two actors once more, I realized that I could have watched these characters talk about utter nonsense during one uncut shot for ninety minutes. That could have been the whole film and I would have been perfectly satisfied. Maybe that should be the next movie nine years from now, how about Before Highway 405?
Hawke and Delphy, who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Linklater, approach these characters with such depth and compassion that everything they say ring true. The way they relate to each other, love each other and even the way they fight always has a genuine feeling. The fact that they are in their forties now brings on a brand new, fascinating dynamic.
Sure, their problems are more serious now, perhaps they are fighting insurmountable odds, but their love is also stronger, more pure. This is no longer a fleeting, youthful love affair, but a lifetime commitment. This fact frightens them more than any other practical problem yet in a way, it also gives their love that much more focus and determination.
Linklater knows that his stars are Delphy and Hawke, not Greece. He doesn’t exploit the romantic location the way other directors might have done by pulling it to the foreground in lieu of a compelling story and characters. Almost the entire third act of the film takes place in a gaudy hotel room, which could have been shot in a sound stage in LA for all we know. Yet we don’t care, because our eyes are fixated on Jesse and Celine.
One example of how realistically the trio captures the lives of such a couple in such a time in their lives: An argument erupts while Jesse and Celine are about to have sex in the hotel room. During almost the first half of the long argument, Julie Delphy remains topless, not in an exploitative or even sexual way, she just forgets to pull her dress back up in the heat of the fight. It sounds superfluous, but it’s details like these that elevate these characters from rom-com cardboard cutouts.
Before Midnight is a soothing, insightful, self-reflective experience, like meeting a beloved long lost best friend after many years. It’s the best one out of the three films so far. The final shot is not as enigmatic this time around but it manages to fill us with equal parts dread and joy. The only bad thing I can say about it is that we have to wait another nine years to catch up with Jesse and Celine again.