As I commented in my recent review of Stuck In Love, I’m not what you would call a fan of romantic movies.
Regardless of the suffix (romcom, romdram, rom sci-fi), the tropes of filmic love – eyes meeting across a crowded room, the initial dislike, the banter, repartee, the eventual kiss – do nothing for me. The sad truth is that the plight of two characters in love has never enthralled me as much as, say, two characters planning a murder.
As such, I was surprised to discover that Before Midnight, the latest installment in Richard Linklater’s Before… series, was not only the best film of my two-day critic’s session, but one of purest cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long time.
The film picks up nine years after the events of 2004’s After Sunset as our lovers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), enjoy a holiday on the Greek Peloponnese. One of series’ conceits is that it takes place in real time, checking in on them periodically. This has the effect of making Jesse and Celine feel like real people, one of the many way in which their relationship seems authentic.
Of the previous two films, I had only seen the original, Before Sunrise, and that long enough ago that I came into the film without feeling any prior connection to the characters. Even as a first meeting with the pair, Before Sunset is stunning.
Both Hawke and Delpy give incredibly nuanced, Oscar-worthy performances; the only reason for which, I believe, it’ll never happen is humility. Both actor’s share the film’s 109 minutes screen-time down to the wire. Hawke’s Jesse is an intelligent but slightly callow, perennially charming forty-something; Celine’s Delpy, less tolerant of bullshit than her long-time partner, less inclined to play the martyr, is more of a realist.
It is a relationship of equals and, as such, when they find themselves mounted on opposing sides of an issue, their forces are evenly matched. The film shows no preference to either side of the argument when it arrives; where you fall will depend largely to whom you most relate.
My sympathies lay mainly with Jesse who, on the verge of being estranged from his now teenage son, is angling towards moving out to Chicago in order to be in his life. Celine, however, is considering taking a high-profile job that will keep them in France and is unwilling to sacrifice her career for a few years of custody squabbles. Jesse’s career as a writer is very much a moveable feast and never becomes a point of contention.
Critics have said that Before Midnight is appropriately darker than the first two films, Sunrise and Sunset. If Sunrise was about the birth of a relationship and Sunset about picking up where you left off, then it seems Midnight is about the struggle for endurance.
This is a true battle of the sexes, no clichés or easy laughs (which is not to say Midnight isn’t funny, but its humor feels grounded, in-the-woof.) Jesse and Celine have two kids together, beautiful blond twins, but, though they remain very much peripheral characters, they rarely feature in their arguments.
This is not about “doing it for the kids”: this is about two flawed, passionate individuals working through the reasons to stay together/split up, throwing invective and navigating old hurts (or occasionally the reverse).
With its long, continuous takes (a discussion in the car between Jesse and Celine lasts almost 20 minutes) and character-driven, dialogue-heavy, plot-light style, Before Midnight manages to truly say something amidst the art-house trappings.
If the message here is that living together can be difficult and that love is compromise, it also says that that it can be a difficult compromise worth fighting for. With luck, we’ll be checking in on Jesse and Celine in 2022.
Often seeming more like theater than cinema, less Mama Mia than something by Eric Rohmer, Before Midnight is a wonderful, naturalistic piece of cinema-making. Essentially a series of duologues or conversations, it manages to shed new light on a complex, twenty-seven yearlong relationship.
Never pretentious, always fresh, Before Midnight is beautifully if simply shot and utterly without ego. Mature and honest, witty and insightful, too – superlatives abound – suffice to say it’s rehabilitated a genre for me. While I can’t promise to run out and hire The Notebook, I have no hesitation in declaring this a classic.