Before Midnight

Before Midnight ★★★★★

Who could forget the way Before Sunset ends? Celine dancing to Nina Simone, pointing at Jesse and saying, "Baby, you're gonna miss that plane." His joyful response: "I know." Nine years later, Before Midnight opens in an airport. It's not Jesse leaving; no, he never took that plane, and his son Henry is leaving after a summer visiting abroad with his dad and Celine. As Henry goes through security, you get the distinct feeling that Jesse might want to take that plane, to go back to his life in America. It's that split-second thought any person in a committed relationship is bound to have. It's over in a flash, of course you wouldn't give up the love of your life, but all the same: you had it, and it nags.

When last we saw Celine, she worked for an environmental organization and still occasionally found time to sing songs, to create. Nearly a decade later, after raising twin girls and taking care of her daydreaming novelist husband, she's grown tired of her environmental job and is about to go to work for the government. The youthful idealism of Before Sunrise, kept mostly alive in Sunset, has turned bitter over the years. There's a weariness, a testiness, an antagonism that wasn't there before.

It's telling that in Sunset, Jesse had gotten married but Celine hadn't. There's that conversation where Celine wondered why the men she dated never asked her to marry them; she would have said no, but couldn't they have asked her? She's discovered what happens when one of them does and she says yes. She ends up living a life she never imagined herself living, nor ever really wanted. You get the sense that she loves Jesse and those two girls of theirs, but that if he hadn't wound up in Paris that evening in 2003, there still wouldn't be a ring on her finger.

Meanwhile, Jesse continues to joke his way through life, to believe in the unbound idealism of their one true love. He thinks that if they move to Chicago so he can be closer to Henry, their love will survive all. To Celine, this is unthinkable. She's already given up so much, it would be like killing a part of herself. In short, there's tension. The biggest difference between Midnight and its predecessors is that the first two films were some of the most romantic in cinema. You almost get butterflies in your stomach just from watching them. Midnight is not romantic, not in that sense. If Sunrise was falling in love and Sunset was a decade's worth of unrequited longing being fulfilled, Midnight is that night all couples have when you reach the brink, stare into the abyss, and have to make a choice.

I'm not sure something like this has been attempted in narrative film before, to showcase in real time a relationship's peaks and valleys over decades. It's a brilliant experiment--director Richard Linklater has another one of those coming soon, Boyhood, filmed over a 12-year-span to allow its child star to age realistically--but it's much, much more. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are nothing less than exceptional as Jesse and Celine, as they always have been and hopefully always will be. The dialogue, which they've written with Linklater, is as wordy as that in the first two, but with a sharper pang. As he's done before, Linklater manages to make so much talk look incredibly cinematic, with long takes that draw so little attention to themselves you won't consider how audacious they are. Watching Before Midnight, I realized that these films are the American equivalent of Scenes from a Marriage, which is not small praise.

UPDATE: After writing this, I realized I'd made a mistake. Though they live together and have children, Jesse and Celine aren't married. Which makes the differences between them even more distinct. Even though they had a once-in-a-lifetime reconnection and for all intents and purposes got to live the magical fairy tale ending, Celine still wouldn't agree to legally beholden herself to another.