Before Midnight Review
This review contains spoilers for Before Sunrise and Before Sunset but not for Before Midnight itself.
Gavin Midgley's cinema review of Before Midnight is here.
First there was Before Sunrise (1995), written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan, and directed by the former. In 1994, while travelling in Europe, American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets French Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train in Vienna. On impulse they spend the rest of the day and the night in the city, before Jesse has to fly back to the States. Over the others as they walk around Vienna, we watch them falling in love with each other. In the morning, they agree to meet in Vienna again a year later. But do they...?
That might have been the end of it, other than a tantalising glimpse of Jesse and Celine in Richard Linklater's 2001 animated feature Waking Life, but for the many fans of Before Sunrise they had their answer in 2004's Before Sunset, again directed by Linklater but this time written by him in collaboration with Delpy and Hawke. It's nine years later, and Jesse is now a successful writer, married with a young son, having fictionalised his night in Vienna in a novel called That Time. He is in Paris, at the end of a book tour, and who turns up to his reading but Celine. Then, after an hour and a quarter together in Paris (the film mostly plays out in real time) they end up in Celine's flat and Jesse is in danger of missing his plane home...
The romantic convention is that consummation is the end, with a presumed happy ever after. But nine years on, in real life as well as film time, we find out what happens next, as written again by Linklater, Delpy and Hawke. Celine and Jesse are now married and on an extended holiday in Greece. They are married and have twin daughters. But cracks are beginning to show. Jesse continues to be successful as a writer (That Time begat a sequel, This Time) but is conflicted about his role as a father to his son, now a teenager we see him seeing off at the Greek airport. Celine is finding it difficult to balance the demands of motherhood with those of her job, and is resentful that she is always the one who has to take second place.
Once again, we drop in on Celine and Jesse during a short period of time: most of a day, as they have lunch with friends, and are given the opportunity to spend an evening and a night in a hotel away from the children, during which the tensions between them come to a head. While we don't see the couple young and falling in love, or not so young and falling back in love, we now have them entering middle age and possibly falling out of love and into...what?
Linklater is an avowed Eric Rohmer fan, and like the French master understands that dialogue, filmed as self-effacingly as possible, can be as cinematic as anything else. And, also like Rohmer, he also understands that taking his characters on holiday sharpens our understanding of them. The major cinematic device is the Steadicam walk-and-talk. Before Sunset has one shot which extends over ten minutes, testing the limits of one reel of 35mm film. With digital cinematography, Before Midnight can go even further: the conversation in the car early on runs fourteen minutes, with just a single cutaway in the middle of it. But it's the immaculate acting and the conversation which are the pleasures of this film, as it was for its predecessors, though certainly the Greek locations are easy on the eye. In the supporting cast are Walter Lassally, a distinguished cinematographer (who, pertinently, won an Oscar for Zorba the Greek) making his acting debut at age eighty-five, and director Athina Rachel Tsangari, director of Attenberg.
Without giving anything away, we reach another open ending. Will we be back again, in nine years time when Jesse and Celine will be fifty, Before some other time of day or night and in another part of Europe? Let's hope so.
Before Midnight is released on DVD on a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2.
Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were shot in 35mm. Before Midnight has a new cinematographer, Christos Voudouris taking over from Lee Daniel, and was digitally captured on the Arri Alexa. Given that this film is a new one and has been in the digital realm from start to finish (any 35mm prints notwithstanding, though I saw it from a DCP in the cinema) you would expect a pristine transfer on DVD and you get one, with strong colours and solid blacks, in the correct ratio of 1.85:1.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, though as before it's not exactly the soundtrack to show off your sound system with. There is a music score this time, by Graham Reynolds, though it's quite minimalist, and the surrounds are used mainly for ambience. Also on the disc is an audio-descriptive soundtrack and a range of subtitle options. This is an English-language film, and brief exchanges of French and Greek dialogue are intentionally left unsubtitled. The extras are subtitled in English as well, including, unusually, the commentary.
The commentary features Linklater, Delpy and Hawke. With eighteen years of shared history between them, as you would imagine there is considerable banter going on. Linklater does talk about the technical side of making the film, but for the most part this consists of the three of them commenting on the scenes as they play out and relating them to real life, theirs and others. It's a pleasurable listen, but not the most nuts-and-bolts chat out there.
“Revisiting Jesse and Celine” (7:03) is an EPK-style featurette comprising on-set footage with interviews with Linklater, Delpy and Hawke. It's as you might expect, but doesn't really dig very deep.
“Before Midnight Q & A” (37:05) features the three of them on stage at Sundance after a showing. The interviewer is Elvis Mitchell. This does fill in some of the gaps of the other extras. Linklater says that Sunrise was a – very low-budget – studio picture, Sunset made for a major's indie arm, but Midnight was off the grid entirely. The three of them talk about how the scenes are constructed – entirely scripted, not improvised – as if each one is a miniature film, with ebbs and flows from comedy to high drama and back again. We also hear how Walter Lassally could not stop being a cinematographer, even though he was an actor on this production.
The extras conclude with the green-band (all audiences) trailer (1:48).