Ah, romance. What if there is no "happily ever after"? What if that fade out kiss fades up on pregnancy, parenthood, and the exhausting pressures of balancing work, family, social obligations and personal desires?
Richard Linklater’s “Before…” movies began with Before Sunrise, a youthful flirtation back in 1995, in Vienna, when Jesse (Ethan Hawke) was coming to the end of a summer on Euro-rail. He was, what, 23 or 24 – and he’d never met anyone quite like Celine (Julie Delpy), a young French woman whose every bit as articulate and smart as he is (and not shy about showing it).
Their brief encounter ended with “what might have been”, except that nine years later they reconnected, this time in Paris: Jesse is a novelist now (his first book is about their meeting), and famous enough that Celine tracks him down at a book reading. He’s married, miserably, and falls in love all over again – we all do, probably.
And nine years after Before Sunset (no doubt Michael Apted’s 7 Up series figures in Richard Linklater’s imagination), here they are, together again, but this time a couple, with kids of their own, and it’s not circumstances pulling them apart but their own mixed feelings…
The new film begins in a Greek airport, with Jesse bidding farewell to his teenage son, Hank, who is heading back to the US and Jesse’s ex wife. It’s a painful parting, more so for Jesse than Hank, who has enjoyed the best summer of his life (in fact, Celine tells Jesse, Hank has fallen for a girl). The father feels frustrated, guilty at missing so much of the boy’s childhood.
During a long drive back to the villa where they have been staying as a guest with another famous writer, the couple talk and joke and bicker while infant sisters sleep in the backseat. Celine is weighing a government job offer. Jesse is musing, ever so obliquely, about being closer to his son (but not so obliquely that Celine isn’t on his case).
Like the previous two films, Before Midnight is a conversation piece. Fans of art house cinema will automatically think of the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer – and during this early sequence, they might also see the influence of the great Iranian, Abbas Kiarostami, who has so often used driving sequences as a way to study two people talking side by side. Later, Linklater nods discreetly in the direction of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (rereleased just this month by BFI).
But these allusions are just grace notes for fellow cinephiles, the dramatic core is accessible to anybody – or at least, anybody old enough to have grown up alongside Jesse and Celine, and to care about the emotional torpor of middle aged folk.
See: they’re no longer young, sexy and charming. He’s pretentious and self-serving; she’s brittle, even shrewish at times (and listening to his latest novel idea, who can blame her?). It’s not that Linklater has ditched romance for satire (it’s not like he cast Jack Black and Parker Posey in the parts), just that the rose tinted glasses have lost their luster…
Constructed of nine lengthy sequences, each of which plays out in real time, and all taking place in the same 12 hour span, Before Midnight also differs from its predecessors by finding room for other voices – Jesse’s son; the European intellectuals with whom they have been visiting…. The film feels looser, more open and more mature, even if it is also more jaundiced. If Celine and Jesse now come off as more conventional, less interesting than they used to, well, we might say the same when we look in the mirror, if we’re honest.
Will Linklater, Hawke and Delpy (who also cowrote the screenplay) circle back for another go in nine years time? Part of the fun of the ending is to ask us to look into the future and imagine if they’ll still be together. And you know what, I bet people will come out with very different takes on the likelihood of that. But most of us will be hoping that they do.