“Before Midnight” – A Welcome Reunion with Beloved Old Friends

Beloved Midnight

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)

I was 26 when I saw Before Sunrise, in 1995, just a few years older than the characters in the film. I had also just spent the previous summer traveling through Europe on a Eurail Youth Pass (25 was the cutoff). So when I saw that film, I related – intensely – to the two protagonists, incarnated by Ethan Hawke, as Jesse, and Julie Delpy, as Céline. At the start of the film, they meet cute on a train as it pulls into Vienna, get off together on a whim, and spend the night walking around the city, talking and falling in love. Their dialogue is a little pretentious, as one would expect that of 20-something intellectuals to be (and I was no exception to that rule), but what is pretension but a striving to find meaning in the world, through ideas. Shouldn’t we all try – especially when we’re young – to figure out where we stand on the meaning of life? I mean, we all know that it’s 42, but still . . .

At the end of Before Sunrise, after sleeping together in a park, Jesse and Céline make a pact to meet a year from then, in Vienna. 

In addition to the feeling that the film was about me (we all have films like that), what impressed me the most about Richard Linklater’s direction was the way in which he made exposition and dialogue feel incredibly dynamic. He kept the camera and characters moving, and even when the action stopped, found life in the vibrant performances of his two leads. It was a touchstone movie.

And then, in 2004, came Before Sunset, the sequel. In that film, we meet Jesse and Céline again, 9 years later, only to find out that they never met up a year after their tryst in Vienna. As the story starts, Céline goes to a book reading at the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, where Jesse, a published author now, is scheduled to appear, promoting the book he has written about his night with Céline. They meet cute again, and spend the day walking through Paris, renewing the connection and spark that they had felt in Vienna. We discover that Jesse had gone to their rendezvous, but that Céline had not, since her grandmother had died. With no way to contact Jesse (they had purposefully not exchanged addresses), she had simply missed the meeting, though she had been unhappy about doing so. We also discover that Jesse is married – with a son – but unhappily so, and Céline has a boyfriend, though she is also not happy in her relationship. As they walk and talk – and it is interesting to hear how their conversation (co-written this time by Hawke and Delpy), though still vibrant and full of ideas, has matured – they begin to fall in love again. The film ends with Jesse in Céline’s apartment, considering whether or not to miss his plane home.

Even more than in the first film, Linklater managed to really make the many walking and talking scenes extremely cinematic. His Director of Photography on both films, Lee Daniel, is to be commended for his efforts in shooting Paris in a way that paid homage to the city without obtrusively reminding us where we were. We felt the presence of its beauty, but were never overpowered by it.

And now, in 2013, we have Before Midnight, a brilliant continuation of this Gen X romantic saga. Here we meet Jesse and Céline again, and discover that they have stayed together this time (though unmarried), and have twin daughters. The film begins with Jesse walking Hank, his 14-year-old son from his first marriage, to the security line at an airport somewhere on the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece. Hank has been staying with Jesse, Céline and their daughters, as part of his summer vacation. We discover in this scene that, though Hank and Jesse are close, Jesse’s relationship with his ex-wife – who has primary custody – is extremely strained. The fact that Jesse lives in Paris and Hank lives in Chicago has begun to weigh ever more heavily on both.

I love this opening, because it shows the very real consequences of the result we had all been hoping for at the end of the previous film. Yes, Jesse and Céline are a couple now, but their union has come at a price. This set of given circumstances helps set the stage for the tension to come.

Once Hank is on his way back to the States, we follow Jesse and Céline as they drive back to their vacation villa, and we are off once more with their amazing conversations. This time, we have a new cinematographer – a Greek, Christos Voudouris – but the filming style is no less dynamic. In a series of long takes, Jesse and Céline talk in the car, talk while walking, and talk while sitting at lunch with friends, in a hotel room, or at a seaside café. The palpable romantic tension that was present in the first two films has lessened, since they have now been together for 9 years, but their intellectual rapport is no less vibrant. Hawke and Delpy are again listed as co-writers, along with Linklater, and in some recent interviews they have given about the film, they have been quite joyful in their discussions of how much the three of them enjoy working together. It shows. We believe that Jesse and Céline are a couple. We believe that, though they still love each other, they have grown weary of each other’s quirks and foibles. At times, they are each just one wrong comment away from hating the other. For the first time in the series, we get a real nasty argument between them. And it’s a painful one to watch. Yet very real. By the end, as we follow their ups and downs, we are relieved to see that, even after all they have been through, they still have a strong connection.

If you don’t like films where people talk for the sake of talking – and I often don’t – then you might not like this film. If you haven’t enjoyed the first two, then you won’t suddenly fall in love with Jesse and Céline now.

But if, like me, you have always felt close to these characters, and have grown older with them, then you will find this new film a worthy third entry in the series.

I know I can’t wait for the next one, 9 years from now!


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