The media was so excited over the possibility of a third installment of Richard Linklater’s account of the romance between American writer Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French activist Celine (Julie Delpy) being made that denials of the shooting of Before Midnight were issued in August 2012—even while filming was taking place in Greece. (That’s one way to avoid media frenzy.)
The first two collaborations that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy produced were the classics, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004); that’s what prompted the furor. Unlike most American films, those features were all about talk and character development: in two words, nothing happens.
Or, to put it another way, everything happens.
Audiences and critics were charmed by the romantic duo and continue to be: the reception of Before Midnight at Sundance this winter was rhapsodic, as was the audience reaction at the Berlin Film Festival.
Now it’s in commercial release in Canada.
Romance, art cinema, genuine talking pictures
Jesse and Celine, who shared one romantic night in Vienna 18 years ago (Before Sunrise), have been together since they met again in Paris nine years later (Before Sunset). They’re just finishing a vacation in Greece with their twin daughters Nina and Ella and Hank, Jesse’s son from his American marriage.
As Before Midnight begins, Jesse is awkwardly sending Hank off on his flight back to America. During the car ride back to the villa, where they’ve all been staying, it becomes clear that Jesse would like to return to Chicago to spend time with his teenaged son despite his ex-wife’s hostility towards him and Celine. But Celine has an opportunity to take an important job, doing environmental work, and despite loving Hank, is reluctant to leave everything to go to America. Jesse backs off—for the moment.
At the villa, director Linklater sketches in the casual events of a late summer afternoon: children playing, the men chatting about Jesse’s plans for another novel, the women talking while making a salad and appetizers. Then, there’s the first of two set pieces as Celine and Jesse join the villa’s owner, Patrick, his old friend Natalia and two other Greek couples. The talk is about life and love and feminism and art; it flows effortlessly and is alternately profound, shallow, funny and moving.
It turns out that Achilleas and Ariadne, one of the couples, has arranged for Celine and Jesse to have a night together in the village’s main hotel. The two take off—and so does the film.
In an extended series of dialogues as they walk towards the village and arrive at the hotel, Jesse and Celine spar and joke at first but gradually the mood turns darker. Celine is angry and guilty that she doesn’t want to leave her native France for another extended stay in America, particularly when her career is finally igniting. Jesse is torn: he loves Celine unreservedly but wants to do the right thing by his son. Soon, that unresolved conflict leads to a deeper fight about their relationship. Are they still in love? Can their relationship survive beyond midnight?
The performances and the creative team
Once again, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have combined with Richard Linklater to create an astonishingly mature and moving work. The story of Jesse and Celine continues to evolve, as the pair grows older. Like the real life subjects in the documentaries 7/14/21/28/35/42/49 Up, we’ve become emotionally involved in the romantic lives of Jesse and Celine. Though they’re constructs from the imaginations of Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, they have taken on meaning to many of us.
Their first meeting was classic: the young American dreamer talking with a beautiful French girl on a train and asking her to spend a night with him in Vienna. What happened was all too real for many of us—a night of conversation about family, art, life and philosophy finally leads to sex. Before Sunrise still feels quintessentially real, a fiction based on the true emotional tales of generations of young people seeking meaning for themselves and their lovers.
Before Sunset put them back together nine years later, with Jesse deciding to spend his life with Celine, the one woman who truly has touched him. And, with much reluctance, Celine accepts him into her life.
Now, nine years later, in Before Midnight, their relationship is no longer based on dreams and romantic projections. They have daughters and a home in Paris. Delpy and Hawke are now ready to tackle a romance that has lost its illusions but is still quite strong. As ever, the two are effortlessly in sych: their conversations flow beautifully and seem completely unrehearsed. (In fact, they were scripted).
The fights between the two become more and more brutal as the film progresses. They’ve disappointed each other. Jesse is a more limited individual than Celine expected; still a boy, he doesn’t cook or pick up his socks. Meanwhile, Jesse has discovered that Celine is crazy—or at least, that’s how perceives her rants about politics and sexuality.
This film—this trilogy, and hopefully, in nine years, quartet—is exceptional precisely because it’s so mature and honest. And that comes from the revelatory writing and naturalistic performances by Hawke and Delpy—aided, of course, by the direction of Linklater. Is Celine truly crazy? Will Jesse ever fall out of love with her? And she, him? Without the stunning work done in this film, who would care?
Not everyone can relate to Jesse and Celine and their romance. Some consider it irrelevant or self-indulgent. But many of us now regard the duo as family. For those who feel that way or are intrigued by the notion of a mature film being made on a real (non-mumblecore) budget, Before Midnight is a must-see.