Their electrifying love affair has spanned nearly two decades (in both the characters’ worlds and on our screens), and now we’re invited into the lives of Jesse and Celine for a third time – flies on the wall of this fated couple’s relationship once more, and although the atmosphere this time is decidedly more melancholy, it’s still as intoxicating as ever.
While Before Sunset, the previous instalment in Richard Linklater’s series, ended in true ‘will they/won’t they?’ fashion, Before Midnight opens with certainty. We meet Jesse (Ethan Hawke) at the airport as he bids farewell to his young son, sending him back to his mother in Chicago after a summer visit. Celine (Julie Delpy) waits by the car outside, accompanied by the couple’s twin daughters. They’re fortysomethings now, and the location is Greece: the setting of a family holiday that’s nearing its close.
Despite the lengthy absence, and fact that the characters are nearly 20 years older than when we first met them, the situation is almost immediately familiar, albeit in a déjà vu sense. Delpy and Hawke might never have been apart, their on-screen chemistry perfected to a tee as they bounce off one another with ease. The two deliver dialogue with exquisite timing – one of the main reasons why a series of films based solely on talking has seen such great success. Before Midnight stays true to the talk-heavy tradition, and static scenes are transformed into thrillers through simple topics of conversation, whether during a car journey or a walk amongst the scenery. You do have to wonder whether it’s likely that a couple in this stage of their relationship would still have such an energetic spark between them, but then again, the series has always leaned more towards the magical than it has realism.
There are certain aspects of the film, however, that are much less familiar. The prolonged presence of additional characters is one of them, and while it’s interesting to see the couple in relation to others, they add all but nothing to the development of the story. These figures are somewhat clichéd, almost desperate to express philosophical ideas, and a group dinner scene is left feeling gratuitous and self-indulgent because of it. There seems to be an almost childish obsession with sex and sexual references throughout the film, too. It’s fuelled in the group scenes (as wine and good company might propel such conversation in real life), but Celine in particular seems incapable of veering from the topic for too long, and the trait feels out of place.
The most notable difference in this film that sets it apart from the previous two is the rather stark realisation that life isn’t a fairytale: people fight and dreams don’t always materialise. It’s not a blissful thought, and it certainly doesn’t make for an easy watch throughout, but it is Before Midnight’s finest quality. Contrasted against the setting of a romantic hotel room, Hawke and Delpy enact perhaps one of the most convincing and sincere arguments seen on screen. Jesse wants to move to the States to be closer to his son while Celine feels stripped of freedom, and the viewer is left helplessly but avidly encompassed in their pain and struggle to resolve not only this, but years’ worth of issues. Linklater’s direction is subtle but strong with delicate attention to detail, and he ensures that reality proves just as fascinating as a fairytale.
It almost certainly won’t be everyone’s favourite of the series, but it’s the right way to say our goodbyes to Jesse and Celine… if, indeed, it is goodbye.