Before Midnight | Director Richard Linklater | Score: 7.5
I was a callow twenty-something in my second year of grad school when , the first film of this wandering couple trilogy began back in 1995. I remember seeing it somewhere in D.C. with a female friend and being struck to the absolute core that a fictional film could speak to my innermost turmoil in such a way.
Especially in one specific moment near the end: The two young would-be lovers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who met earlier on an Austrian train and have spent the day and evening trailing around Vienna and speaking philosophically with one another, arrive at an alleyway sometime late in the night. Jesse, a charming vagabond, has clearly found himself smitten with the beautiful, engaging Celine, but he is still plagued by the idea of accomplishing something significant with his life: “It’s just that, if I’m totally honest with myself I think I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something. That I had excelled in some way than that I’d just been in a nice, caring relationship.”
Their first night together ended very romantically, but there was a significant caveat attached. The last scenes of the film are shots director Richard Linklater took of all the beautiful settings in which they meandered about during the course of their night-long courtship. In the early morning, they are all empty and deserted; a testament to a wonderful, ground-moving period of time that has all too fleetingly come and gone. In this bittersweet moment, Linklater could find few better metaphors for the enchanted moment in which we meet someone out of nowhere who we somehow know will be of supreme significance going forward.
The second film of the series, Before Sunset, shot roughly ten years later, found Jesse and Celine long since lost touch but still holding on to the magic of their first meeting. Jesse returned to Europe for a book tour celebrating his first novel — more or less documenting that charmed night in Vienna — and meets Celine again when she comes to his reading. Over the course of the film, Jesse, married with a small son at home, makes the fateful, life-altering decision to give everything else up in order to be with the woman he truly loves.
Completing (?) the series, then, we re-engage with them almost another full decade later, now as a stodgy couple with twin seven-year-old girls in tow. As the film begins, Jesse is appropriately enough in an airport, this time in Greece, where he is dropping off his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) — now a young teen — to fly back home to the U.S. after a long summer vacation spent on the beautiful Greek estate of a highly accomplished writer, Patrick (Walter Lassally), somewhere down in the Southern Peloponnese region.
Surrounded as they are by the lush beauty of southern Greece during the summer, the couple is still almost comically devoted to each other and happily engage in the same running dialogues and counter arguments that marked their relationship from its very inception. On this particular day, with Jesse feeling wistful at Hank’s leaving, and nearing the end of their six-week idyll, they are given as a going-away present, a night away from their kids at a luxury hotel somewhere in town by another couple (Panos Koronis and Athina Rachel Tsangari) also staying at Patrick’s estate. Given the chance to spend time together alone, things quickly boil over and a long, dangerously embittered argument ensues. Jesse and Celine, ever generous with one another their deepest, darkest feelings, are quickly able to use that precious information against one another.
One of the hardest things to accomplish as a writer of fiction is to create conversation and dialogue that flows easily and naturally between the characters in such a way as to capture the poignant points of their passionate discourse in a way that feels natural and clear. This is an ability Linklater has always displayed, from his debut feature Slacker on — his protagonists gorge themselves on exuberant conversation, voicing opinions, theories and bits and pieces of science, philosophy and religion in a way that is somehow, commandingly, riveting. Time flies when you are in their presence.
And, in this way, Jesse and Celine are his two greatest creations. They are compelling now as they were as kids, if anything, the years have made them even more vulnerable and poignant. Hawke’s face has lost its youthful vitality, lined and etched as it is, and Delpy has grown comfortably, naturally, rounder and less angled. Now, in their full-flung mid-lives, after the fireworks of their first blush, and the full orchestra of their re-connection, they have settled into one another the way we all do if we’re lucky enough. Though their fighting has grown in intensity and bitterness, though the anguish Celine seems to feel when she’s not being fully taken in account, the most amazing and hopeful thing of all is they still remain indelibly fascinated by each other: After all these years, they are still each other’s best counsel. The dream might well have changed almost beyond recognition at times, but it still lives on.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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