Silver Screen: Before Midnight ****1/2
The best movie of the summer is a sequel.
Before Midnight is significantly different than the rest of the season’s slate of followups and reboots: No origin stories are retold, no classic pop formulas are remixed, and there’s nary an Avenger in sight. The only thing that gets blown up is a relationship, but the power of the climactic battle between two disillusioned lovers emits more heat and light than any computer-generated armageddon of 2013.
Richard Linklater’s 1994 Before Sunrise introduced Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), two young romantics who meet randomly while American student Jesse is traveling through Europe. They strike up a conversation that stretches through the entire night before he must inevitably take a train away from her. Before Sunset, the surprising followup nine years later, reunited the two in Celine’s native Paris after Jesse has published a book about their encounter. During the course of a single conversation playing out in real time, they hash out the follies of their fleeting youth and explore whether or not there’s still a place in their adult lives for the idealism that defined their first meeting.
Before Sunset ended on a fantastic cliffhanger, so the third installment is not just appropriate, it’s a relief: 2013 finds Jesse and Celine together but unmarried, raising twin daughters. They’re at the tail end of an idyllic vacation in Greece, but their relationship, like the country, is beautiful but deeply troubled.
After a summer vacation of bonding, Jesse bristles at having to send his teenage son back to America and Jesse’s embittered ex-wife. She’s possibly a drunk, and still holding a grudge against the French woman who broke up her marriage. Guilt-stricken Jesse contemplates moving back to the States to be closer to the boy for his final years of young adulthood, but that doesn’t jibe with Celine’s plans. After sacrificing her own ambitions to work at a nonprofit and raise their daughters to school age, she’s eager to get back to the working world in her beloved Paris.
Some friends offer them a free hotel room and babysitting services so they can sneak off together for one romantic night together in Greece, but what begins as idle talk en route to a conventional married couple’s getaway of sex and sleeping late turns into a heated war of words that calls into question the foundations of their union.
Linklater’s dynamic trilogy is a sterling example of sequels done right. These are not movies born of creative repetition or financial inevitability, and each new chapter adds layers of richness to the ones that precede it. Sunrise is clever and passionate but also youthfully aimless. The deep introspection of Sunset, however, turns those potential flaws into assets and makes the original a referendum on romantic naïveté-- but without dimming any of the actual romance. The ideas at play in Sunset are at once intimate and profound, and the end of the movie works like a Rorschach test: After all of Celine and Jesse’s talk of practicality, do you still hope that he stays with her in Paris despite the disparate trajectories of their lives? Would they reclaim themselves by taking another shot at improbable romance, or simply fail to learn from the mistakes of the past?
The events of Before Midnight answer a few of those questions, if only obliquely, but the back half of the movie takes on a newly heavy tone for the series. Their concerns are now indisputably adult dilemmas. Jesse cannot escape the consequences his actions have wrought on his son and his ex-wife, and two more daughters and a partner dealing with a delayed midlife crisis adds exponential complications. The fight that plays out during their night in the hotel room is more civil and philosophical than that of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but not much less intense. The individual lines of dialogue, cowritten by Linklater and his two talented leads, are diamond-sharp. “Everyone thinks because you wrote this book you fuck like Henry Miller,” Celine snaps. “You don’t do anything like Henry Miller.” Ouch.
Their circumstances are specific, but the contentious issues are familiar to any marriage, from charged arguments over domestic minutiae to unsolvable quandaries about how to balance two separate careers and a family as well. Though years pass between films, events that have occurred offscreen are implied so succinctly that we feel as if we’ve been along for the whole, rocky ride. Hawke and Delpy have never been better than in this series, and they conjure up an easy intimacy that’s so vital and vivid, it’s heartbreaking to imagine its end.
Like its predecessors, Before Midnight raises as many questions as it answers, but none more pressing than this: When can we see the next one?
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.