Before Midnight needed to achieve two things. As a follow-up to Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), it needed to satisfy die-hard fans of Jesse, Celine and their story. Beyond that, it also needed to work as stand-alone movie, being accessible to audiences unfamiliar with the previous films. It succeeds at both – but is a very different film depending on which of those two camps you fall into.
If you are unfamiliar with the first two Before films, this movie is a study of a relationship at a cross-roads. The movie opens with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) saying goodbye to his teenage son at a Greek airport. His son is the product of a failed marriage, and Jesse has a new life with Celine (Julie Delpy) and their twin daughters. As a family, they have just spent what we assume to have been an idyllic summer together in Greece, but now they face the return to reality, as Jesse’s son returns to his mother in the US. This long, tense, heartrending scene sets the film in motion, as the following 109 minutes gently reveal the deep-seated, long-festering resentments that simmer just below the surface.
If you know and love the first two Before films, this is startling, raw and brutally honest – not just because of the relationship difficulties on display, but because of what life has done to these beloved characters. The Jesse and Celine we first met in Before Sunrise, eighteen years ago, were idealistic, hopeful twenty-somethings, walking through the world with open hearts and minds – open to possibility and connection. Nine years later, in Before Sunset, we find that life conspired against them, and they never, ever re-connected. They are now thirty-something, and are respectively on unhappy paths – he, married with a child, feeling like he’s “running a small nursery with someone I used to date”, and she in a relationship with a war photographer who is never around. Both deeply dissatisfied with their lot, their paths converge once more, and as we leave them for the second time, choices are made. Caught up in the romantic notion of it, we wish nothing more than for these two people to live happily ever after. But now, another nine years on, we have Before Midnight, and it is time to grow up. It is time to be realistic. It is time to deal with the complications of life.
The forty-something Jesse and Celine are two people in the grip of their own, very different crises. Jesse is feeling particularly torn as his son, at long-distance, enters puberty. Knowing the importance of these years in his son’s life, he feels that distance acutely. Celine is at a cross-roads in her career, and is juggling that against her role as a mother. These are enormous stressors, and as the couple head for an artificially romantic evening planned and organised by their friends, those tensions peak as they vent the frustrations of their own lives by tearing furiously at the fabric of their relationship.
This is intense, high-calibre filmmaking of the rarest quality. It is written by the director, Richard Linklater, and the actors, Hawke and Delpy, who have taken characters originally created by Linklater and Kim Krizan, and made them their own. There is not one missed beat or wrong note here. Looking back over the first two films, every character development and story thread is followed through. These characters just make sense – as written and, crucially, as performed.
As in the first two films, the performances given here by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are nothing short of masterful. They simply are Jesse and Celine, and they carry us with them on both their individual and collective journey. As Jesse, Hawke fills the screen and conveys every emotional fluctuation perfectly. As he walks slowly from the airport, having put his son on a flight to another country, we can feel the hole in his heart. As he discusses plotlines of possible books with his friends, we can feel his passion for his work. As he sits on the hotel bed listening to Celine rage, we can feel – all at once – his sadness, frustration and determination.
As Celine, Delpy gives us a no-holds-barred vision of an intelligent, capable woman who finds herself acknowledging a long-hidden, deep, emotional distress. Always having longed to recapture that initial sense of profound connection, she is left frustrated and lashes out in response. Even as she spirals into an angry, spiteful hysteria, it becomes clear that the real issue is not the one that she is screaming about. Though the character becomes loud and expansive, Delpy’s performance is nuanced and subtle, keeping Celine constantly grounded in a relatable emotional truth.
These spell-binding performances are encompassed by Richard Linklater’s unique directing style. As is the hallmark of the Before films, Linklater combines long, continuous, unhurried takes, with dialogue that is rehearsed to the point that it becomes completely natural. All these films – including Before Midnight – feel entirely improvised. In reality, not one single word is improvised, and the fact that it flows so beautifully is testament to his filmmaking talent, and his collaboration with his actors. Long takes – often up to 13 minutes without a cut – mean that nothing can be ‘saved in the editing room’. What is on the screen is polished, precise and perfect.
Perhaps what makes Before Midnight so remarkable is its exploration of the concept of ‘soul mates’ – whether there could be such a thing and, if so, how does that change and grow over time? The first two films were very much ‘time outs’ for these two characters, but now they are deep into it. They have built a life together and created a family. They have finally achieved the vision of possibility that they caught only glimpses of the first time they met. So, what happens when you get the thing you dreamed of?
Watching Jesse and Celine wrestle their way through Before Midnight, one thing is clear. In long-term relationships, it is important to remember why you chose to be there in the first place. Otherwise, your hands slip each other’s grasp across the waves and you are left to battle against the storm to find each other again. That is the battle we are watching here, and it is beautiful to behold.