In Before Sunrise, audiences were treated to a triumph of promising nature before a turn in Before Sunset’s lyrical address to regret. With the previous road so well paved, how then can a new installment, Before Midnight, nine years in the making bring even more insight into a relationship that seems pretty well crafted to begin with?
Relying heavily on rich character, strong writing and naturalistic improvisation Richard Linklater has crafted one of the most well-known and widely loved movie romances in modern cinema, and to say the latest in the series, Before Midnight, could be considered not only the strongest but the most in-depth outing yet is bold but the film has the goods to back it up.
To catch one up in the state of such as well-known trilogy would be a tough egg to crack in the space of this column. If you haven’t viewed the previous outings of the other installments in this series, please do so before viewing Before Midnight. Yes, it’s nice to say that while one can catch this film in it’s entirety and enjoy the outcome with just as much having not been privy to the previous entries, it truly is a pleasure in viewing Before Midnight in the context of the overall series.
And with that out of the way…
Our story picks up with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a successful novelist who is experiencing his last few days retreating in Greece at a writer’s retreat, staying in the bucolic country villa of an older expat writer, Patrick (Walter Lassally). Jesse’s given to flights of creative fancy which charm the assembled company, warmly hospitable Greek couples, but Celine (Julie Delpy)—whose own past has played a starring role in Jesse’s semi-autobiographical novels—is perhaps a bit weary of serving as alluring French muse to Jesse’s fiction career. As a treat, their Greek friends have gifted Jesse and Celine with a night at a luxurious seaside hotel while they babysit the twins. Feeling the undercurrent of friction between them, Celine wants to bow out for the evening, but their friends insist. What does a longterm couple do in a sleek hotel room besides throw off their worries, responsibilities, and clothes and make love? But for Jesse and Celine, realities intrude: the weight of children, work, ambitions, disappointments; the ebb and flow of romantic love; the strains of an evolving, deepening relationship. Their idyllic night tests them in unexpected ways.
To compare a new installment in such a recognizable trilogy is a difficult one but here goes. Overall, Linklater has once again done a marvelous job on capturing time, place and character in Before Midnight. The story structure will be no surprise to anyone who has seen the previous two films – we get alot of walking and talking, sitting and talking and, oh yea, more talking. However, unlike the bittersweet story of a young love in Before Sunrise or the pay off of a contentment filled ending of Before Sunset, Before Midnight throws caution to the wind and gives a darker and more ominous toned story arch that is not only a poignant heft to the story of our beloved characters, but much like the vein of Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film Voyage to Italy, there’s a certain feeling of a harsh realism to the age we live in; audiences will find a wonderfully blemished couple brimming with below-the-surface fragilities and ever-present stakes to appreciate.
The insightful Linklater again uses his lead actors in Hawke and Delpy to incorporate both natural linkage of Actors to characters and characters to script, resulting in completely organic dialogue that never makes Midnight’s philosophizing on the forces of literature, love, sexuality in the modern age and sexisms between men and women seem preachy or put-upon.
The sad reality of Linklater’s cycle of films is that the material is so strong and well fortified between acting, camera work, script and overall production that they test what the state of originality is in cinema; generally, the pieces are written off as lacking in conviction. The truth is that Linklater unveils elegantly fluid camera work that’s intimate without ever being noticeable or distracting. Multiple long shots follow our heroes and setup the overall framework for the piece to follow. We are given expertly engaged long scenes of what may appear to be monotonous conversation simply to help pass time, but in reality, fully rundowns whole insights into the setting between our couple. It’s through this long-scope mentality that Linklater does his best work – Midnight’s massive movements on a minutiae scale.
Altogether, Before Midnight manages to simply & faithfully uphold its ideals of the previous entries while continuing to push the limits and insights of its characters and meaning forward for past fans but in such a concise way that one never grasps this fully at the time. Furthermore, the material stands firm and sturdy enough that new audiences can jump on to the Linklater vehicle, easily and seamlessly, capturing a rich and satisfying portrait of a couple facing their day-to-day struggles in a deep entrenched atmosphere of character relationship through simple spontaneity with total avoidance of the slightest hints of exposition – it’s seamless and it simply works.
If someone is familiar with the on-screen acting work here then Before Midnight won’t be a far stretch or departure from what we’ve come to expect. If you’re new to the game then a quick summary is needed. Together Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy started creating this particular series of films in 1995 and have since continued to release a further chapter on the couple every nine years – essentially making Celine and Jesse one of the longest and most organic character studies portrayed on film; to say that the actors know their roles is an understatement. While the previous two films showed a wonderful chemistry and bond between the actors on film, somehow Before Midnight has managed to drive the relationship even further. Ethan Hawke as the grizzled and still-hopeless romantic Jessie is as sensitive as ever to which is set off from the beginning of our story when Jessie’s son Hank must return back Chicago. Hawke finally seems truly matched emotionally in Midnight to Julie Deply who still continues to embody the vivacious and neurotic Celine. Together, Hawke and Delpy impressively show the heart and soul of the intimacies of a true relationship by combining the successes, failures and glances that come with such a well defined bond; I could write an entire column on the nuances that both actors have brought to these memorable characters, but to put it simply, both are wonderful – end of story.
The Before Cycle is a self-effacing experience that finds meaning in the major and minor qualms of every relationship, while also taking the journey of Individual Self to a new level; Linklater isn’t afraid to breach uncertainty and brashness where most films flee. Most notably Midnight’s last act is a wonderfully intense bottle episode that easily harkens back to influences from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with it’s close quarters of a seaside hotel room drawing out each character’s fighting style and vulnerabilities to ultimately draw Midnight closed with a quandary for everyone involved, audience included. It’s this scene that truly shows the relationship and restraints that our faithful couple has subjected each other to which makes Linklater’s latest such an affected film.
Audiences have gotten to know Celine and Jesse over time and to end that story after only 3 chapters would be the easy route, so what will the future be for our characters – only Linklater, Hawke and Deply really know…or maybe they still don’t. Regardless, the Before cycle has gotten its reputation as being another great romantic epic of a defined wave of popularity that is perpetually discontent. It’s with this unsettling that Before Midnight takes the lead in this series of films and proves that there are still more questions than answers for Celine and Jesse; after 3 films, this uncertainty should be seen as something incredibly comforting. Linklater balances a fine sensibility and improvisation-ally headstrong direction, while talents in Hawke and Deply are spot on and fully-embodied. Before Midnight’s beautiful countrysides and lovely sunsets of the Grecian seacoast are impressive on both the small screen and large, so the question shouldn’t ever be Theater or VOD – what’s more important is how many times you can see it anywhere it happens to be playing.
Watch the trailer here.