Having been a fan of this — let’s call it a series — by the team of Linklater, Delpy, Hawke, I had been looking forward to Before Midnight. The trailers promised a movie just as good as the previous two: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.
To be able to follow Jesse and Celine from their romantic almost-never-happened beginnings to their married world might sound boring to those unfamiliar with these characters. But, to die-hard fans, it is truly like catching up with long-lost friends you haven’t seen in, what, oh, nearly nine years. And, as with the earlier two movies, this one is also a study in real-life grown-up relationships — with all their ambiguous, conflicting, and bittersweet emotions.
Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke, is now an older, twice-married writer. He moved to France to live with his second wife, so he only gets to see his pre-teen American son for summer vacations and lives with a constant guilt that he is not being a real father to the growing boy. He is also struggling to write his third novel after the runaway success of the first and the lackluster performance of the second.
Celine, played by Julie Delpy, is an older, now somewhat less idealistic, social worker trying to be a good mother to Jesse’s son and the twin girls they’ve had together, maintain her identity as a career professional, and cope with the usual issues of growing older. Both of them are also dealing with how each takes the other for granted in their now longstanding relationship as husband and wife. Yes, the usual stuff of real-life that practically every couple faces.
The movie is set during a family vacation in Greece. Again, as is typical of these movies, there aren’t a lot of other people or even many scenes. I counted maybe five or six scenes happening over the span of a single day. The movie is all about the dialogue and the subtext — like the previous ones. However, where the previous two movies showed a pair of lovers falling in love, this one is more about a husband and wife trying to stay in love.
In the only ensemble scene — a beautiful afternoon lunch with their vacation host and his family and friends — there’s one of those sudden, frank conversations about the nature of love. The kind of conversation that we’ve all had when, feeling relaxed in the company of certain people, we let our guards down and find that the vulnerabilities we unknowingly expose make the conversation take surprising unexpected turns. There are four couples around the table. They’re at various stages of their own lives and relationships, so the different perspectives they offer and the ways they react to each other makes this, for me, the best scene in the movie. Watching Jesse and Celine, trying to individually and internally reconcile all the different impressions and thoughts from around the table reminded me why I have enjoyed these two actors and their characters immensely. There is never too much explaining or holding the viewer’s hand. It is expected that you know these two people and their history and are interested or care enough to read beyond the words and into the gestures, expressions, and body language.
Most of the other moments in the movie are between Jesse and Celine as they talk during a car drive, walk through a Greek village, watch a sunset (echoing other sunsets they’ve watched together in the previous two movies and, while there are even fewer words in this scene, knowing the previous ones makes it even more meaningful.)
The big anti-climactic moments, in more than one sense of the phrase, happen during their hotel room arguments. These are arguments that most couples will be familiar with. After all, only the person who knows practically all your weaknesses will know where to hurt you the most. So, whether Celine is scoffing at Jesse’s boringness at sex with “You’re no Henry Miller” or Jesse is tossing back a “You’re right….. as usual” to get the last word in, they have become experts at shoring up their own defenses and throwing out little salvos from time to time at the other.
As I mentioned before, it helps to have the context of the previous two movies. In the first one, Before Sunrise, some 18 years before, when Jesse and Celine meet, they talk a lot about what their future lives together might be like: their concepts of enduring romantic love and their fears of turning into bad parents, sad spouses or boring people. The second movie, Before Sunset, nine years after the first and nine years before this third one, still finds them trying to reconcile the happiness of finding each other again, falling in love again, and determined to make it work this time around. It is the third movie that brings all of that together — those fears and hopes about the future. Only, this time, in their relationship, it’s not just the two of them. It’s them, their three kids, their jobs, their friends and coworkers, ex-wife, etc.
The final scene, with the two of them sitting at another cafe table with their backs turned to the stunning waterscape and trying to talk themselves into a sort of temporary truce is all the more tender because of memories of them sitting at other cafe tables having entirely different conversations in the previous two movies.
There are, of course, many movies about the anatomy of a relationship. What makes this more special is that the movies are all set about nine years apart each. So we get to see Jesse and Celine growing older as both Hawke and Delpy do the same. Additionally, those of us who have been following these movies from the start have also been growing up along with Jesse and Celine. So our understanding and relationship experiences have also evolved somewhat similarly.
A few words about the two actors. From the very first movie, Hawke and Delpy’s on-screen chemistry has been a charming constant. That natural chemistry is still here, despite their familiarity as a couple that’s been married for several years. Beyond that, the evolution of the characters themselves is spot on: the youthful earnestness and idealism replaced with 40-something realism and the way they respond to the other’s complaining or self-righteousness now. And finally, how they play off each other appears seemingly effortless. For example, when Jesse is annoyed with Celine’s constant hypothetical questions, you feel both his exasperation and her insecurity although neither expresses anything too overtly. Also, for example, when Celine responds shortly to Jesse’s variously tiresome I’m-a-writer behaviors, you absolutely get her simmering anger and his perplexity from how both their words and body language are in perfect harmony.
As with the previous two movies, the writing, cinematography, and music do not disappoint. As another writing collaboration between Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke, you know that a lot of effort was put into the script because of both its dialogue-heavy nature and the contexts and sub-contexts from the previous two movies.
When we can tear ourselves away from focusing on Jesse and Celine, the lingering shots of the picturesque seaside Greek village throughout the movie offer a lovely respite. And the timeless European music softly reminds us of their earlier, more romantic times.
In the end, the movie should be thoroughly satisfying to long-time fans. And, certainly, such fans will be hoping for a fourth installment. It is also worth watching or re-watching the first two movies before seeing this one to get the full story of the relationship as it evolves over the eighteen years or so.