Before Midnight


After watching Before Midnight, the third installment in the two-decade-long cinematic romance between the Parisian Celine and the American Jesse, I re-watched Before Sunset from 2004. I wanted to find connections between the two films, the two most recent in the series so that I could compare the preoccupations of the characters in Sunset and how they evolved over the nine ensuing years to become the characters in Midnight. Thematically, the films are seamless, and, all taken together, the three Richard Linklater films are really an outstanding example of how to bridge fully realized human beings across an entire trilogy. Linklater and his stars and co-writers, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, have mined so much from the core of their two characters, so many naked human truths, that Celine and Jesse now seem to exist in that boundary between fiction and reality. We see so much of ourselves in them that they may as well be real people.

Be warned: Before Midnight is no romance. It’s a horror movie. It is a bitter, mocking, cynical rebuke to the hopefulness of the previous films. That’s not a criticism; it’s a simple fact of the film as much as it is a simple fact of life. Do not look for hope here.

Celine and Jesse are now in their forties, the parents of twin daughters, and living a messy and difficult life in a big city (Paris), as so many parents do everywhere. The film takes place at a writers retreat on a Greek island where Jesse, Celine and their daughters have been invited. Linklater places us in the midst of the colony’s earthy and writerly residents. We eavesdrop on their conversations, most of them about marriage, relationships, sex and (the transience of) love, getting the gamut of opinions from the colony’s ensemble. Teen lovers express their youthful rejection of true love while the colony’s more aged souls have found peace with the idea of heartbreak and come to accept the idea that love means letting go. In the middle of that is Jesse and Celine, who find themselves at the brink of some cruel terrors and realities.

Celine is disenchanted with Jesse, as a lover and as a man. At one point, around a table with the others, she begins to mock Jesse’s vision of an ideal woman and slips into a “blonde bimbo” routine, cooing and pouting as she pretends to flirt with him. It’s embarrassing to watch, even more so as Jesse chooses to play along. It’s also embarrassing because, as eavesdroppers here, we never fully understand the dynamic within this small group. It feels unhinged, the friendships false or artificial. Linklater and company never adequately establish the relationships so the openness and cordiality at play here seem alien and unconvincing. Still, the confessional nakedness of these opening sections felt reminiscent of Eric Rohmer or Louis Malle–the film has that awkward yet generous European vibe about it–and I did find that refreshing in a contemporary American film.

“Naked” and “confessional” describes the film in its entirety as Celine and Jesse must decide how to proceed in life. Jesse feels a powerful guilt and parental pull toward his now-teenaged son (from his broken marriage) living in the States. He misses him, wants to be a steadier presence in his life. In fact, the most devastating scene in the entire film is its opening, when Jesse has to say goodbye to his son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), at the airport as the latter has to return to the States after a summer in Europe. We see Jesse, the father, doing his best to be strong and convivial toward his son, but his tentative gestures–all he wants is to hug his son and never let go–and his look–the look of a heartbroken parent–tell the truth.

Later, as Celine and Jesse head off to a private overnight stay at a nearby resort, the film’s ugly and jaundiced truths bare themselves as Celine, sensing Jesse’s conflicted heart, reacts to seeing herself as either the villain, keeping Jesse from his son, or as the victim, who must forever compromise her youthful dreams in molding herself to be the obedient spouse. To be fair, her anger is understandable: She has carried the burden of bearing and raising their daughters, keeping house and cooking while maintaining her career as Jesse pursues his writing. Celine’s barbs are particularly vicious, demeaning Jesse’s manhood, intelligence, his sexual and literary prowess, among everything else. Jesse, for his part, is as cocky and full of himself as ever. But he still grounds this relationship, his optimism now tempered by a newfound realism. Regardless of their openness, the sense of imminent terror here is palpable, the imminent break, of two lives approaching the point of no return.

What Before Midnight offers in terms of verbal firepower, it lacks in subtext and undercurrents. Nowhere does it achieve the breathtaking power of that first scene. The effectiveness of that opening airport scene was all achieved in those undercurrents of heartbreak and loss, conveyed simply and silently. The temperature of Before Midnight soon becomes a rising, overheated trajectory of verbal jabs and accusations. Everything is literal, right on the surface, leaving nothing to be gleaned elsewhere.

Others might say,”Of course, it’s all on the surface. These are raw, immediate issues that need to be expressed between two people.” I say that’s totally legitimate; people have arguments like this all the time, everywhere, but it doesn’t make for great cinema. Before Midnight is a bold movie, but it never achieves poetry (minus that opening scene) because Linklater and his stars never vary the tone, their dramatic strategy; it’s all in-your-face and the whole thing is an much an act of emotional aggression toward the audience as it is toward its characters.

To be fair, this is the same strategy employed in the previous two films. But when I watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I’m not listening to the dialogue so much as watching the performances, trying to discern deeper secrets and foreshadowings, to discern the implications of what’s said. Before Midnight, on the other hand, is a difficult film to watch. We sense nothing in its depths. Maybe that’s the point, I have to wonder; maybe there’s nothing to be sensed below what is stated explicitly. Its depiction of an unraveling relationship, of harsh words and tough realities, heartbreak and what’s it like to stare into the unforgiving chasm that is the rest of one’s life make it an important and worthy film, though not a particularly lyrical one. I admire its honesty and wish this couple well.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Ariane Labed, Jennifer Prior, Walter Lassally, Athina Rachel Tsangari



  1. I wholeheartedly agree with the desc as a horror film, painful to watch. The first turning point I sensed was the awkwardness implanted when Julie D. character state “this is going to be the end of us” in the car, from which point I concluded a phone call from from the son would mend. The relationship seemed salvageable after the second act, and watching Julie and Ethan’s character sitting there at the table among all the other characters, they seemed to be silently, secretly holding onto something that makes them our champions for true love. But then Ethan’s reaction to the phone call, which ironically hails destruction from the son, instead of diffusing the previous awkwardness, was like the finality of a person taking that irretrievable step off a sky-rise, our eye’s latched in horror as we witness him plummeting to the certain inevitability.

  2. I entirely agree with you! It is a horror movie, a sarcastic,cynical and total rebuttal of the first movie and in parts the second movie as well. Perhaps that is how life is . Honestly, I always felt that Jesse and Celine are *real* people and I think they can’t get more real than this movie. I felt very sad, when Celine accuses Jesse of having sex with Emily (apparently a bookstore girl in Washington, where Jesse visited), a little part of me died inside (I am not saying he didn’t bang Emily nor trying to defend him). The very fact that Celine accuses Jesse of something that banal, was depressing, Celine is a very smart woman, full of grace and joy, and if such a thought enters her head, given their histories and Jesse’s commitment toward her and her kids, it’s just baffling. I think if Celine is falliable then every woman on earth, let me be clear I didn’t say she is perfect, I thought she was above this level (this applies to Jesse too, but he is a lot less crazy, he is just worried about his kid, part of which is perhaps irrational). I think the real world got to our character. They aren’t those optimistic young kids who fell in love in Austria 18 years ago. This movie killed whatever hope, feelings or respect for romance I had ( which was cultivated by previous 2 movies). As the saying goes, if the real world can make u so ordinary , so banal there was perhaps nothing special about you or your love in the first place. I am not saying there is no respect or sense of commitment, but that is not love, not the thing which we could sense in the first 2 movies (yes even in 2nd one).

    As a movie I like it perhaps better than sunset slightly less than sunrise, yes the airport scene is poetry, I could relate to it. As the previous films, this film also takes place in one of the beautiful corners of Europe, I think this film is shot way better than the last 2 films. I also felt a bit uplifted when that old-lady speaks about her husband and the concept of passing-by.

    For me romantic love in its truest sense was Before Sunrise (perhaps still is, whatever left that is). After seeing this movie, I’ve become skeptical about love again.

    For a guy like me who hated the concept of a romantic movie (I suffered through many mindless, melodramatic and overly emotional crap of movies,throughout my teens)

    Before series is a rare oasis of deeper, investigation of human emotion and in particular notion of romantic love. I was ultimately let down by the fact that, I am where I was before, skeptical towards this notion. But I felt entertained, moved and sometimes was urged to introspect. I might still be a bit hopeful, considering the course of entire mythology.

    Rick Linklater goes into my books as one of my favorite directors.
    kudos to the trinity : Linklater,Hawke and Delpy

    PS: Sorry for this excessive spam, I just couldn’t stop the flow of thought.

  3. Hey that was a very good review, and full of good insights. I just wanted to say to me there did seem undercurrents and subtext all the way through the film.

    Everything seems tilted toward memories, transience and death from Jesse’s ideas for his books which he relates at the start to what the characters share about their parents and meditations and ageing and death. Then they watch the sun set while Celine notes it’s passing and then later after their fight how Jesse surveys different parts of the room and I couldn’t help remembering the character he wanted to write about who could only see the passing nature of things. The room would be tidied up in the morning and all traces of that night would be lost just as their relationship ultimately seemed to be passing. Maybe not that subtle and arguably much of these themes are contained in the “text” anyway, but there were the same notes being hit all the way through.

    It’s the first time I’ve seen a sequel that really stood by itself but also took so much power, thematic and emotional, from the previous installments. Having seen them made this movie so much more poignant I thought and somehow makes them more credible.

    Good movie but a bit of a hard watch, who’d be in love eh?

  4. “Before Midnight” is one of the … WORST films of 2013. Total depressing dreck. And it’s on many critics’ top 10 lists. WHY ???? I don’t get it. This is more mysterious than than the identity of Jack The Ripper! It was pretentious. It had dialogue that went nowhere. It had two married losers arguing about nothing interesting. How can critics put this crap on their lists ??? Are they being paid ??


    For sheer emotional suspense, the first five minutes of this movie are unbelievable. I watched Before Sunset again just before BM. I caught myself whispering “please be together” over and over again and then she was outside by the car when he came out of the airport. The relief! The joy! My heart sang. Lets not forget that the premise of the first two movies was them meeting after many years apart. He could easily have got another flight “for the sake of his son” and then met her again nine years later but perhaps this time they might both have been properly single. I was then on tenterhooks for any car crash, ill daughter or other tragedy and found myself vowing violence if the writers hurt either of my beloved couple who are exactly my age and who I have adored since I also crossed Europe in the early-mid 90s and “did an overnighter” all around a Danish town called Arhus with a stunning blonde I met there and who I still remember. What was simply astonishing about this movie was its raw honesty as they confronted the issues that now faced them. Both were so believable. Cleverly, there was no external meteorite to hurt them – they just shredded each other. A horror movie indeed.

    Celine is neurotic, paranoid, over-dramatic and very very hard work. So female. So feminist. So French. But Jesse gets no sympathy. He went in with his eyes open. All the signals as to her psyche were loud and clear in Before Sunset and even in Before Sunrise. He even tells her he doesn’t mind that she is now an angry depressed activist in Before Sunset. He needed to stamp all over that from the start instead. But he rises to so many of her challenges in such a mature way. He laughs at her “oppression” as a middle class French woman. He tells her straight out that she is nuts. He ignores her unfaithfulness accusation and bats it straight back to her and she doesn’t deny his accusation which shows utterly outrageous and moronic she was to raise it. She even meta-level smashes his attempt to be rational and then gloats when she is later “rational”. Ugh. He calls her out on her “dream job” metamorphosis and her bitching, negativity and anger especially how it could damage his son. She just about clings on to some semblance of sanity by playing along with his time machine game at the end but he had to warn her he wasn’t going to be a little dog and keep coming back to her as he had just done by traipsing after her out of the room. That was a direct and essential threat to cut through her nonsense and love of dramatic “I dont love you any more” crap. Finally some pride. Finally he stood up to her un petit peu and she almost looks relieved that she can finally buckle. After a fight like that he had BETTER throw her all round that hotel room so she is talking about it 40 years later.

    On the other hand he needs to man the f up by a factor of ten and much earlier. He handles her career choice discussion really well by basically not saying that much except highlighting her own contradictory statements which gives you initial hope but then the correct answers to his daughter (which they had even discussed!) were “you snooze you lose” and “daddy ate it” but they both lie instantly to their children as if the kids wont notice that kind of weakness over time. Shitty parents indeed but not for the reasons they think. The modern madness of talking everything to death nearly kills this relationship and the insane feministic bleating about the chore allocations which they have overtly agreed to as a couple, not to mention their natural inclinations, also just injects poison into their dynamic. Where is the respect for difference, for roles? To claw his face off for not being as “nurturing” as her is so insane it just takes your breath away – and she even admits she had no empathy when the twins were born!

    Its not her fault per se, it is western society’s sickness but they are so achingly hip about wind farms and how the world is screwed apparently – isn’t their blinkered refusal to acknowledge the amazing advances in medicine, science and technology a symptom of their warped life view? So jejune. It is clear that she would probably have died in child birth in any other era. And for such a group of hip liberal pro-feminists they utterly ignore the old woman’s perspective before she just owns them all with what a real woman who has truly loved understands that none of them get. But the old lady has to interrupt the conversation because noone has even noticed her, never mind asked her opinion. And even the totally in love mature Greek couple’s ha-ha story is denigrating to men, Such is our world. The young couple hint at what could have originally happened to our pair in a Facebook world as they were clearly miles away from each for months. Cute plot point.

    Having said all that, these are conversations that happen in millions of relationships and, they say, these emotional catharses can perhaps strengthen pair bonding but the claustrophobic entrapment and almost out of control Celine should be a living hell for any self respecting man and a warning not to be sucked into conversations which are just traps women set for men. He even knows it and says it. Where the f is the joy and laughter they dreamed of in Before Sunset? Where is courtesy? Where is role playing? It is the time machine game and the “bimbo” impersonation that, in an apparent but not actual, distortion of so-called “reality”, could and does save these two but they seem to be too foolish to understand the power of such “constructions” even though they can be more real than the alternative. So stupid. These two could possibly just cling to their rickety raft (their life’s work!) and survive together off the back of the time machine incident (solely to Jesse’s credit) and despite his loss of face in crawling after her but in ten years time, it is almost impossible to see what more they could have to say to each other or to us. They have fulfilled their biological imperative and they are done.

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