Before Midnight Review
Warning - this review contains some SPOILERS about the plot - read on at your peril
It might seem something of a paradox that cinephiles - people who generally prefer sitting in absolute silence with a room full of strangers to making idle conversation - have fallen so hard for a trilogy of films which consist almost entirely of two people talking to each other. Just talking. Not even talking about big, important things necessarily (though it does cover these), but every day stuff too. Yet such is the case with Richard Linklater’s rambling Before... series, of which Before Midnight is the latest entry. What is perhaps more astounding is that all three films - beginning with 1995’s Before Sunrise and continuing with 2004’s Before Sunset - should be so compellingly written and performed. This new instalment is every bit as beguiling as its predecessors, as it progresses the central relationship between Jesse and Celine to an older, more mature, yet no less problematic phase.
Picking up the story several years on, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has left his wife in the States and is now living with Celine (Julie Delpy) and their twin daughters in Paris. He is a successful writer but feels guilt over his absence as a father while his son from the now-dissolved marriage grows into his teens. Celine has hit a career crossroads and is uncertain about whether to take a job in the public sector, while the strain of balancing her work with the stresses of motherhood is beginning to tell. While holidaying on a Greek island with friends, the couple are given a rare opportunity to relax together alone at a small but upmarket hotel. As the sun sets over the Mediterranean and the clock ticks towards midnight, can they rediscover the elusive spark they used to have?
As with the previous film, Hawke and Delpy have written their own script alongside director Linklater, and this, together with their disarmingly natural performances, surely fosters the extraordinary level of intimacy that radiates from the screen. Not physical intimacy (though the film does dip its toe in those waters), but the sense that these are real people who share a very real bond. As always, it’s a joy just to listen to these characters shoot the breeze. In the first 30 minutes or so, as they drive back from the airport, there’s plenty of the familiar chit-chat about their lives, jobs, children, how bad they are as parents and so on, all apparently shot in one long take - a device used by Linklater in each film. This is then followed by a prolonged dinner table conversation with their friends, where the nature of love and relationships is debated at some length, and the focus shifts temporarily away from Jesse and Celine (this sequence feels slightly less authentic, yet is just as absorbing as the rest).
The couple then amble to their hotel, ostensibly heading towards a romantic evening alone to rekindle their fire, as it were. In fact, this all turns out to be the calm before the storm. The warning signals can be seen if looked for: hints of discontent in Celine’s tone and language, a slight discomfort in Jesse’s. And, sure enough, it all comes out in the hotel room finale, as years of niggles and suspicions finally get aired. It might sound like something of a downer, but then this series has always taken the road less travelled when it comes to relationships. The Hollywood-style ideal of there being one true love for everyone is pretty much torn to shreds during the dinner table discussion, and these two are nothing if not pragmatists. The way their evening quickly disintegrates into arguments, accusations and counter-accusations has a painful ring of truth to it.
Yet it’s not the depressing experience it might sound like. We already know these two share an immense connection together; seeing them try to knock it down is upsetting - and rightly so - but it is absolutely in keeping with their characters’ history. They have always scorned mediocrity and self-deception in favour of open honesty. It’s a necessary act of catharsis, an all-too-real part of adult relationships, and that makes it a journey worth taking - both for them and for us. Before Midnight works beautifully on its own terms (the gorgeous Greek backdrop certainly adds flavour), and as a sequel it succeeds in retaining the essential core of the earlier films while finding new dramatic ground to explore. Simply put, you’re unlikely to see a more riveting romantic drama this year.