In 1995, writer and director Richard Linklater made a simple independent film called Before Sunrise about an American traveling in Europe named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the Parisian student Celine (Julie Delpy) who he picks up on a train one afternoon in Vienna. Over the course of one night, we witness the unfolding of their love and then watch helpless as they leave each other the next morning. They make vague plans to meet again in six months, and that's it.
Nine years later, the characters reunited to make Before Sunset. They missed each other in Vienna, but Jesse wrote a novel about their experience, and when he goes to Paris to promote the book, Celine shows up and the conversation continues.
I couldn't believe it had been another nine years since the last film, but here we are with the next installment, Before Midnight. The last time we saw the couple, Jesse had married someone else in New York City and they had a child together, but the marriage was on the rocks and it's clear by the ending of Before Sunset that this time they're going to stay together or at the very least exchange phone numbers.
At the start of Before Midnight, we learn that Celine and Jesse have gotten married (I think, although it might just be a common-law thing), have 7-year-old twin girls and are living together in Paris. They look plump and happy at the start. Jesse's career as a novelist has been fruitful (convenient, I know, suspend your disbelief) and Celine is as content as she'll ever be doing humanitarian work, but their lives aren't perfect. Jesse misses his son in America and puts forward the idea of moving back there to be nearer to him. Celine doesn't want to go back to America, and, voilá. This is the central conflict of the film, but with lovers like this it's never so simple.
Before Midnight takes place on the last night of their summer vacation in Greece. Linklater's scripts (the last two are also co-written by Delpy and Hawke) are known for letting moments meander uninterrupted for longer than is sometimes comfortable. The effect is a rarely achieved intimacy between both the characters onscreen and our relationship to them.
As a teenager in the '90s, Linklater's films were among the central preoccupations of my life, and his influence persists. In Celine I saw the beautiful, sensitive, fiercely smart and independent woman I wanted to grow up to be, and in Jesse the brooding intellectual I hoped to marry. Linklater's characters talked about relationships, death, art, reincarnationall the best things. That tradition continued with Before Sunset, but with added urgency.
Before Midnight is unique in the series because the enemy is no longer circumstance; now they have nothing but time, and with so much real life to look forward to, they turn on each other. The latest installment belongs to Celine and her claustrophobic fit at the idea of domesticity forever. The script is expert, as always, in the way it captures the cadence of bickering couples. At one point Celine says that Jesse is "Always [doing this bad, annoying thing.]" And Jesse calmly replies, "I'm not always doing anything." It's true of the film as well. They oscillate between affection and anger on a dime.
I'm surprised and a little disappointed by what's become of Celine since the first film. She seems shrill, ungrateful, manipulativeshe's almost a caricature of the belligerent feminist. I no longer want to be her, which is unsettling. What does that say about marriage and motherhood? Jesse is measured and reasonable; he comes off as damn near saintly in comparison.
At times heartbreaking and frustrating, Before Midnight is a good film in its own right. You don't need to have seen the first two to get something out of this one, but it helps. And if you've seen the others, you have no choice. You can't just abandon them now.
Before Midnight continues at the Wilma Theatre.