By Michael Koresky
Dir. Richard Linklater, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
[The following article contains spoilers.]
Before Midnight is the first of Richard Linklater’s films charting the ever-expanding romance of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) that hints at a silence between the lines. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are loquacious works—generous, ever unspooling rap sessions—because the situations of the characters dictate that form. In 1995’s Sunrise, the two starry-eyed twenty-something lovers, coasting on the fumes of young amour, had only one night in Vienna to get to know each other before boarding a morning train and possibly never seeing each other again. In 2004’s Sunset, the two thirty-somethings were forced to do a quick, real-time game of catch-up in Paris before newly published writer Jesse left on an evening jet plane back to his wife and child in the States. Now, in Midnight, just-past-forty Celine and Jesse have long been a couple, unmarried but with accessories—a pair of adorable twin daughters. Early on, we glean that they practice a comfortable, mundane, domestic routine, and at the moment are enjoying a lazy summer vacation in the Southern Peloponnese of Greece. So, for the first time, their narrative has been contrived with a distinct lack of urgency. Will these two, known to us so much for their intellectually searching, bedeviling, and sometimes maddening conversation, still have things to talk about? Or more to the point, will they find the time to do it? It’s a question that this very self-conscious and very special film is quite aware of, and one it responds to brilliantly.
Celine and Jesse have always had to acknowledge time. In the earlier films, they’re running out of it. Now they have the ability to glance back and see what they have thus far done with it. Life gets in the way; age and circumstance change how one perceives time. So when they have moments together, just the two of them, they become acutely mindful of the significance of those moments. For the sublime second half of Midnight, two supporting characters—local friends they have met during their vacation—have devised a way of sending Celine and Jesse off alone, ostensibly for a romantic night at a hotel. The stroll there, past sun-lit fields of ruins and decaying churches, brings the two characters back into their own individuated time and space. As they themselves realize, they are not talking about the stuff of everyday—chores or plans or routines. It is here that Midnight reveals itself, like the earlier films, as a compressed, concentrated vision of a relationship, in which, under two hours, we can feel the full weight of love. In Sunrise, it was the moment that mattered. In Sunset, it was the renewal of that fleeting moment, feared lost. In Midnight, it is a reckoning with the past and future, the burden of reality on the dreams of youth. But all three are equally about hope.
From its playful, quietly perspective-shifting opening shot, Before Midnight at once recalls and expands upon the entire series’ preoccupation with the beauties of communication. The camera follows two pairs of feet walking in our direction; expectations dictate we will pan up and see our two stars, as the films have never strayed from Delpy and Hawke. Yet we’re looking at Jesse not with Celine but with his pre-teen son, Hank, only mentioned in Before Sunset and now a full-fledged character, an affable young person with a distinct but not overpronounced melancholy. The two are nearing an airport security gate, through which Jesse’s son will return to his mother in the U.S. Due to Hank’s mostly monosyllabic responses in conversation, a noticeably gravel-voiced Hawke sarcastically says, “I really cherish this communication we have,” instantly reminding us of the relative ease with which Jesse has always spoken to Celine, and of a central thematic through-line of not only the Before films but also all of Linklater’s oeuvre. As Celine once said, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone.” But there is beauty in Hank and Jesse’s relationship, however taciturn the child may seem. The unavoidably bitter kid of divorced, embattled parents, Hank nevertheless grants his dad a moment of unvarnished sentimentality, telling him that his vacation in Greece was the best summer of his life. Whatever momentary strain there is on the relationship seems to come from the usual father-son battle of wills. Already, we see that Jesse is slowly becoming his father, as his subtle instructions to Hank (to give up piano and soccer “would be a mistake”; “team sports are important”) amusingly remind us that Jesse, at the beginning of Sunrise, spoke of not wanting to conform to what his parents expected of him. Jesse’s idealism for his own life has been displaced onto his children.
This unexpected yet natural opening does not merely tell us that at a certain age communication threatens to become less about “give and take” than giving advice; it also establishes an important reality. We cannot and should not expect those two pairs of shoes to belong to only Jesse and Celine, because their relationship is no longer an impenetrable bubble that includes just the two of them. Their partnership is with each other and the world now, and has thus expanded out in concentric circles to affect the lives of many—children, exes, friends. In this way, Before Midnight recalls Maren Ade’s recent soul-barer Everyone Else, which acknowledged the impossibility of a romantic relationship as a self-sufficient unit. Hank is the essential character to begin Before Midnight. He is the collateral damage of Jesse and Celine’s love, a child torn between parents, between continents. After he gets on that plane back to the U.S. (unlike Jesse at the end of Sunset), the camera follows his dad from behind in a smooth tracking shot as he leaves the airport and rejoins Celine, waiting outside next to their car. He has re-entered the time and space of the Before films.
Though it doesn’t play out over a strict real-time narrative as in the previous film, Before Midnight has no less elegant a formal structure. Following the aforementioned pre-title scene, it is divided into three distinct sections: a leisurely car ride back from the airport consisting of one extended conversation between Celine and Jesse, while their little girls doze in the backseat; a dinner the couple enjoys at the gorgeous home of the famous writer whose invitation initiated this Greek trip in the first place; and the climactic scenes in and en route to the hotel, the site of the film’s final reckoning. Though all these discrete sequences are marked by the nonstop banter we’ve come to expect from these films, each has its own specific emotional tenor. In the film’s first movement, Jesse and Celine, in very long takes only occasionally broken up by inserts of rolling Greek countryside as seen from the car’s windows, draw viewers back into their world in a mostly affable dialogue, the topics of which (Celine is considering taking a governmental job; Jesse is fearful that he’s missing the good years with Hank) plant the seeds for more fraught, riveting discussions to come. Though the overall tone here and throughout the first half of the film is winsome and airy, set to the languorous rhythm of vacation, Celine offers a tale from her childhood about her father’s systematic killing of an annual litter of kittens that casts a foreboding pall on the proceedings. The Before films, from the first, have been significantly preoccupied with mortality, both in Jesse’s obsession with time and Celine’s neurotic attraction to death itself (“I think I’m afraid of death 24 hours a day,” she said at age 23.) One of Sunrise’s most evocative moments takes place at the grave of a little girl, a place Celine remembers visiting during a Viennese family vacation; and most powerfully, she reveals, early in Sunrise, that even as a child she always had the odd sense that her waking life is the memory of an old woman as she’s about to die.
In the film’s second movement, the conversation is more dispersed; as it’s spread evenly among a larger cast (including Attenberg director Athina Rachel Tsangari), it might seem uncharacteristic of the Before series, yet in terms of sociopolitical and cultural talking points, it’s the scene most reminiscent of the other entries. As David T. Johnson writes in his invaluable volume on Linklater for the University of Illinois Press, Before Sunrise is “a celebration of the life of the mind—of two minds, really, an intellectual harmony as important as the romantic and spiritual ones also shared by the central couple.” With the free and easy spirit of the communal dialogue amongst Jesse and Celine’s warm Greek hosts and a surrounding group of family and friends of varying ages, one might note a connection to Eric Rohmer, that director frequently invoked in discussion of these films, and whose Le rayon vert gets a fairly explicit visual reference point late in the film. Yet often Rohmer is lazy shorthand for “talky”; the connection here is most relevant for the general air of dissipated romance that gradually seeps out of the characters, and which marks the former Cahiers critic’s brand of brainy and sensual longing. Erase Jesse from the picture and you might as well be watching a movie about Le rayon vert’s Delphine, like Celine at turns weathered, earthy, neurotic, devastated, anticipatory.
Though at first, one might need to squint to see it amidst all the verbal hustle-bustle, Celine is lonely. With multiple internationally known books under his belt, Jesse is now a novelist of repute, while Celine, the purported subject of his books, is relegated to the purely functional roles of muse and mother. As we come to appreciate, these are wearying to play. Midnight goes on—subtextually at first, and then literally—to question the sustainability of the many kinds of roles we embody within relationships, from seducer to lover to teacher to parent. And as in Sunset, this film calls attention to its protagonists as characters within a fiction (Jesse’s and Linklater’s simultaneously), one whose previous installments concluded ambiguously, yet whose final ending hasn’t yet been written.
The glory of Before Sunset was that it granted Jesse, Celine, Linklater, and us the opportunity to write a new ending to Before Sunrise—one that wasn’t an emotional limbo—without sacrificing the climactic ambiguity that made it so thrilling. By virtue of its existence, Before Midnight has a similar effect on Before Sunset, effectively closing its open end, and then swinging the door wide again. Each new installment forces a recalibration of our expectations while at the same time giving us just enough of what we desire and anticipate: we might feel like the figure in the new book Jesse claims to be working on, who lives in a maddening yet magical state of constant déjà vu. (Celine clearly inspired a different proposed character, who cannot stop seeing far into the future and thus thinking about death.) Midnight makes us aware that everything we’ve seen between Celine and Jesse has happened before and will happen again: the burst of young love is reiterated at the dinner table by two fresh-faced early twenty-somethings (Attenberg’s Ariane Labed and Yiannis Papadopoulos) staying at the house; at the same time, an older dinner companion reminisces about her husband, long passed away. His memory visits her at night like a ghost, and in the morning, “the sun makes him vanish.”
“We appear and we disappear and are so important to some, but we are just passing through,” she also says, eloquently segueing into the film’s final passage, an emotional confrontation with both the concrete matters of the everyday and the ephemerality of romantic love. Jesse and Celine move on toward their destination, the sun setting as they exorcise the past, their failures, their lost youth, and touch lightly upon the possibility that their flame is flickering out. With Celine’s spoken reference to Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, the film’s cinematic precedent is clear, but in Linklater’s hands this moment—a literally transitional one, carrying them from the warmth of the open-air communal dinner to the isolation of the hotel interior—is beholden to nothing but these characters’ lives. During this promenade, they touch on a number of the serious issues that have been insidiously plaguing their relationship, yet each is diluted with a joke as soon as it’s raised. Such evasiveness is impossible once they’ve reached their destination, a coldly modern space that stands in marked visual contrast to the unrefined Old World grace of all three films’ previous locations. Here, romantic optimism officially gives way to raw, barely concealed wounds built up over years of compromise and resentment.
Before Midnight is remarkable for how it not only strips away the idealism of the first two films but also debunks the seemingly envious lives of its protagonists. As introduced at the beginning of Midnight, Celine and Jesse appear picture-perfect, with their sweet-cheeked blonde twin girls and their Grecian summer paradise. Jesse seems a pleasantly self-assured horndog and Celine a palatably non-aggressive neurotic. The final act reveals, at the commendable risk of alienating and disillusioning the audience, Jesse’s confidence has hardened into arrogance and Celine’s neuroticism has calcified into fatalism. Due to the supremely intelligent, emotionally honest, and eminently fair performances of Delpy and Hawke, both remain as dear to us as they do to each other. It’s poignantly clear that whatever happiness they’ve carved out has been hard-won.
In Before Sunrise, to cap off their wondrous first night together, Jesse has to sweet-talk a bartender in the middle of the night to procure a free bottle of wine while Celine surreptitiously shoves two wine glasses in her purse. That the bartender agrees to give them the bottle feels like a triumph; they drink it outdoors, in a park, as a prelude to sex. In this anonymous hotel room, a bottle of wine is already provided, a gift perched on the coffee table aside two wine glasses. It has simply been handed to them, no youthful fervor necessary. The struggle to find love—to woo, to wrestle, to tame—has long been over, replaced by something cautious, something comfortable, perhaps something scary. The tense now or never has been replaced by the more frightening now and forever.
Before Midnight is neither a film about love’s beginning nor its end. As a poetic evocation of a crucial stage in two people’s romance, it falls somewhere between E. E. Cummings’s celebrations of love and Robert Lowell’s harrowing mid-career verses on marriage, such as “Man and Wife” (“Now twelve years later, you turn your back/Sleepless, you hold your pillow to your hollows like a child.”) As the title suggests, the film holds the possibility of reaching the witching hour, of turning into a nightmare. But Linklater has no intention of realizing or completely allaying our fears. These complex, contradictory people are given their due, which means they are allowed to be difficult, hypocritical, beautifully right and wrong. With this latest installment, the Before series has officially grown epic. The films have gradually crept up on us to become American cinema’s most sustained and vital portrait of the wonders and realities of romance. As do the characters, we get swept up and carried along, only to get intermittently grounded, before being held aloft once more.