It's been 19 years since movie audiences were first introduced to Jesse and Céline, the chatty, opinionated couple played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who have been the focus of the now three movies in Richard Linklater's "Before" series of films. In 1994's "Before Sunrise," we watched as the pair met by chance aboard a train traveling through Europe, fell in love while spending an idyllic night chatting and strolling the streets of Vienna, then parted ways with a promise to meet again in six months' time. A whopping nine years later, "Before Sunset" gave us the next chapter in the relationship, as Céline and Jesse met again in Paris. It's once again been nine years since that film came out, and now we have "Before Midnight" to give us a peek at how their relationship has progressed.
We quickly learn that Jesse and Céline are indeed still together. They've just spent the summer staying with friends in Greece, and they have two adorable twin girls together. As their holiday comes to an end, their friends decide to gift them with a much-deserved night alone in a hotel. They'll finally have some time together, without their children constantly underfoot. Jesse and Celine walk, they talk, take in the sights, and slowly make their way to the hotel room that's waiting for them. That's about it, in terms of plot. But as longtime viewers of this series know, you can get a lot of dramatic mileage out of a simple conversation.
After all this time, it's safe to say that if you're watching this film, you're invested in Céline and Jesse's relationship. With that in mind, it's interesting to note that "Midnight" probably doesn't go in the direction that most fans might have hoped, but rather in a way that feels real and honest. This film is likely to be at least slightly disappointing to the true romantics out there, but that shouldn't be entirely shocking to fans, given the inclination of the minds behind the series to, whenever possible, deflate their audiences' idealized conceptions of love (at least, the kind typically reflected on the big screen). After all, "Before Sunset" did begin with the revelation that Jesse and Céline did not make good on their promise to meet up again after their first night together.
This is a darker film than either of the previous movies, and that feels right for a couple as interesting, flawed, and intelligent, but with as much baggage as these two characters have. At the end of the second film, it was implied that Jesse was choosing to leave his wife and child to be with Céline. This film shows that they're still dealing with the very real consequences of that decision. Jesse feels that he hasn't been enough of a father to the son he has with his ex-wife, and wonders whether he and Céline should move to America so he can be closer to him. Céline, for her part, is adamantly against a move, being on the verge of a great new job and unwilling to uproot their children.
These aren't the superfluous, contrived problems that provide the conflict in a traditional romantic comedy; these are real issues that couples may face, ones that could potentially doom a relationship, no matter how strong. I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that the centerpiece of the film is a lengthy argument between the couple, as their problems come to a head inside the hotel room that was to provide a romantic escape. The film has a good ear for the way people in long-term relationships fight; those in the audience who have been with their partners for any lengthy amount of time may find themselves wincing in recognition.
Both Hawke and Delpy inhabit these roles so well, and both turn in natural, seamless performances. As with "Before Sunset," they each had a large hand in writing the script for the film and helped contribute to the way these characters have developed. Richard Linklater's assured direction turns those long, unbroken takes of conversation into gripping cinema. And man, do those conversations manage to pack an emotional wallop. The film is honest (sometimes brutally so) about how hard maintaining a romantic relationship can be. There will always be rough patches, the film seems to say, but those periods don't necessarily mean that love has disappeared entirely from a relationship. Couples who stumble into this film on a date night will likely find that they have a lot to talk about after the film ends, and there's much that will resonate with anyone who's been in any sort of romantic relationship. As with the previous films, the conclusion is open-ended, and there's still much that can be explored should Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy decide that they wish to return to these characters. Hopefully in another nine years.
CITY Newspaper film critics Adam Lubitow & Dayna Papaleo discuss Richard Linklater's third installment in his "Before" trilogy: "Before Midnight" starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. MAY CONTAIN MINOR SPOILERS