One of cinema’s great love stories is now even richer—full of the complexity that comes with longevity. Before Midnight caps off one of the most compelling, emotionally satisfying trilogies ever filmed. (Whether or not it stays a trilogy nine years from now is anyone’s guess.) Director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy understand the joys and struggles of aging with someone you love, and have packed several years worth of feelings into 105 minutes. The movie contains more pain than its predecessors, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but that’s because it’s a wiser, more mature work.
(NOTE: Some fans don’t want to know a thing about what’s happened to Jesse and Celine since Before Sunset. While this review avoids any major plot spoilers, it does discuss the film’s premise.)
Until Before Sunset came out in 2004, no one was expecting a sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise, an enchanting romance about two people spending what they presumed would be their only night together. The first film was ballsy and rule-breaking in its simplicity: It was about two people, walking around Vienna and talking until a train connection sent them on their separate ways. Its appeal lay in the immediacy and urgency it gave to the human connection between the thoughtful French woman, Celine, and the eager American man, Jesse. Its two young heroes were full of ideas that they wanted to share with one another. Before Sunset revisited the pair for another walk, this time through Paris, as they meet for the first time since that night in Vienna, now wiser and more aware of just how special what they had was.
The first two films succeeded on the quality of their dialogue, both in performance and writing. Setting up long stretches of spoken word with no action is considered a sure-fire path to failure for good reason—if it doesn’t work, it puts the audience to sleep. Like its predecessors, Before Midnight has no such problem. It’s constantly compelling. It leaves you waiting eagerly to hear what the characters say next.
Hawke and Delpy are utterly comfortable in their roles, able to play off one another in Linklater’s long, unbroken takes. The first scene between them, talking in a car while their daughters sleep in the back seat, is shot in a single 13-minute two-shot. It is full of warmth and humor, and quickly catches the viewer up to speed on the characters’ lives.
The biggest change between Before Midnight and the previous two movies is that the characters well and truly know one another now. They’ve spent the last nine years together, raising two daughters, and know all about each other’s life and work. They are now at the stage in life when responsibilities and duties have piled up, things are overwhelming, and they aren’t sure if they’ve made the right life choices.
While the past films were tightly focused on Jesse and Celine, other people naturally play a greater part this time around—not only their children, but the people they’re staying with in Greece. We see glimpses of young love, conversations between groups of men and groups of women, and a warm communal dinner scene in which everyone philosophizes.
This is still Jesse and Celine’s story, however, and they’re eventually given the chance to walk through some ruins and the city alone, on the way to a night out in a hotel that they’re friends gave them as a gift. They are able to look back with nostalgia at that famous night in Vienna, and think about how singular that experience was, and how deeply it was tied to their youth.
It’s remarkable how much each sequel has recontextualized the previous films. Because the characters face age-specific feelings in each film, the trilogy has become, inevitably, a meditation on the different stages of life. A moment becomes a memory as we move later in the series.
Before Midnight finds the characters struggling with regret over the parts of life they missed out on. Here are two people who found their long-lost love and started a life together, but even the most ideal romantic fantasy becomes life once you start living it. Unrealized possibilities and personal failures always loom larger in the mind.
For Jesse, the biggest hole in his life is his son, who is growing up with his ex-wife on another continent while Jesse and Celine live in France. In the opening scene, Jesse drops his son at the airport after spending the summer with him. The goodbye naturally causes him to fantasize about moving to Chicago to be closer to his son, but that’s not what Celine wants, and she doesn’t see what good it would do, seeing as Jesse would still only have every-other-weekend visitation.
Meanwhile, Celine feels overburdened and under-appreciated. Delpy gives the best performance of her career as she balances motherhood, regrets, hangups and annoyances with a sharp sense of humor. She’s at her best when all the couple’s issues come to a head in a brilliantly executed hotel room scene that bursts with angst and power.
Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Hawke and Delpy, and the trio really know these characters. They have approached a subject that could have easily felt too rosy or too depressing, and found the perfect balance of humor and anguish. As a result, Before Midnight, like its predecessors, succeeds in its focus on two people who are so smart and funny that it’s impossible not to want to hear what they have to say.
Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Starring: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior
Release Date: May 24