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.
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