Before Midnight

Before Midnight ★★★★★

After two slight-of-hand open endings, a third film in the Before trilogy would need to make some sort of choice regarding the trajectory of Jesse and Celine’s lives: did they couple up after their re-encounter in Paris, or is their connection doomed to never quite happen. Fortunately, for the romantics in the world, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy all agreed that Jesse left his wife soon after the events of Sunset, and has been living with Celine and their twin daughters ever since. Yet, this revelation isn’t the very first thing to happen in the film. Instead, it opens with Jesse dropping his son from his previous marriage, Hank, off at the airport, the boy having just spent the summer with his father and Jesse’s family and friends. As Hawke puts it, it allows the trio to “look the decision [that Jesse and Celine made] in the eyes”, and the tone the scene strikes is indicative of what’s to come.

Midnight isn’t a break up movie—well, not necessarily. It’s the most sober of the sweepingly romantic Before films, and with that sobriety comes the realities of the world around our star crossed couple, as well as all the perils and pitfalls of a long term relationship. As such, it’s the first film to truly feature other characters, not just people the pair encounter on their way through another European city, but their friends, colleagues, and children. In this way, Midnight is just as truthful and compelling as the previous entries, as it seems to accurately ebb and flow with every interaction. 

There’s no ticking clock this time around, but there is a bomb. Neither Jesse nor Celine need to make an exit in the morning or the evening, but instead, the couple are pulled inexorably toward a forced “couple’s night out”, set up by their friends as a way for the two to enjoy their vacation without the burden of their children tagging along. The destination of this night out, a swanky hotel room, works as a parallel to Celine’s apartment in Sunset—a place where the barriers come down and the two lay themselves bare. At first, it’s a love scene, that subtly but rapidly turns sour, and then openly hostile. Seeing the two of them mired in conversation that’s not sweet and optimistically philosophical but instead bitter and venomously logical is like a cold splash of melancholy straight to your face. You came to this film to continue to fall in love with them, not start to hate them both! And yet, as Linklater rightfully points out, this fight scene is perhaps the most romantic in the film. Here are two people so deeply in love with each other that they’re doing everything they can not to let it fall apart.

It does, of course—and then it doesn’t, in what amounts to yet another bravura ambiguous ending for the series. In the final scene, Jesse not only openly references the pair’s first meeting all those years ago in Vienna, as he exclaimed then that Celine getting off the train with him was akin to time travel, that it’d let her find out what would have happened with one of those guys she almost dated but didn’t before getting trapped in a contentious relationship. The scene also closes a loop, as the bickering middle aged couple that caused Celine and Jesse’s chance meeting is now the two of them.  Taken on its own, Midnight may be the most downbeat of the films. But taken as a trilogy, it’s a beautifully bittersweet third chapter, potentially an ending, potentially a new beginning, as Jesse’s “time traveller” story hints at. As the meta narrative of Linklater, Hawke and Delpy creating and revisiting these characters throughout their lives proves, time is impermanent, and yet those magical moments that occur can and will resonate forever.

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