July 8, 2013

Before Midnight: Love Inside Chaos


There are few sequels that organically continue the story without feeling unnecessary. The pratfalls are everywhere, and countless examples reveal this danger. Filmmakers often create a complex mythology to justify the movies’ existence. They also keep raising the stakes until a regular cop is saving the entire country from a terrorist attack. The films that buck the trends succeed because we stay connected with the characters. When Before Sunrise arrived in 1995, few expected to meet Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) again. It was a charming romance about young people who talked differently. Hawke and Delpy played intellectuals with aspirations that feel natural for so many college-age young adults. We loved spending time with them, and that connection only grew after meeting them again with Before Sunset in 2004. That film had a perfect ending that promised great things for the couple. They grew up and weren’t so idealistic, yet the indescribable bond remained. When the credits rolled, we believed that true love was possible. Sequels may outshine their predecessors, but few have such a satisfying conclusion. The challenge for Richard Linklater and the stars was finding a way to surprise us again. Movie lovers adore these characters; do we want to see them fight? This question hangs over the third installment, which takes Jesse and Celine into difficult territory yet stays true to their past.

Before Midnight – Directed by Richard Linklater; Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy

Before Midnight occurs nine years after we left Jesse and Celine in her Paris apartment. His decision to miss his plane makes them an official couple, but there are complications for this idyllic existence. This story begins at the airport as Jesse says goodbye to his teenage son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). They’ve spent the summer in the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, and it’s time to return to his mom in the States. Their awkward conversations remind us that Jesse’s choice had consequences beyond his love for Celine. It ended his marriage and made him an absentee father living overseas. This guilt is a key factor in everything that happens in the film. He has twin daughters with Celine, and they have a beautiful family. Watching them interact at a grocery store is charming and shows the best parts of their life. They look like a real family on holiday, but that happiness masks serious resentment beneath the surface. We join them at a gorgeous vacation home on the water, and they share pleasant moments with friends. The first hour confirms the promise hinted at during their romance in the other two movies. Jesse and Celine have taken the next step and are living the dream, yet their relationship has become extremely fragile. The couple may appear perfect on the surface, but hints creep in that disaster looms around the corner.


This film is an acting showcase because Hawke and Delpy have room to breathe inside the extended takes. An early scene has them driving and just talking for a long time. They’re recalling memories of childhood while the camera sits still and faces them. All seems right in the world, but one exchange sets the stage for later troubles. Like many couples, it’s what isn’t said that’s the key. Jesse speaks about his concerns about living so far from his son, but he doesn’t mention the unintentional gut punch that Hank just gave him. Celine wants to talk about her new job, but she isn’t asking the real question. This strikes at the challenge for so many couples, who mean well yet can’t figure out how to verbalize what’s inside. His desire to be with his son doesn’t mean he wants to abandon the girls, and she’s looking for affirmation on a tough choice that may change their home life. It takes a while for this tension to boil, but it’s only a matter of time before it explodes. At dinner, they’re engaged in a standard conversation about the differences between men and women. There are only hints about what each is actually saying, but they’re still there. No matter how beautiful the setting, the concerns of real life aren’t going to disappear. Jesse and Celine enjoy a friendly walk through a stunning locale that reminds us why they work as a couple. The problem is that both aren’t totally committed to what’s actually happening. Romance is in the air, but all it takes is a few honest words to send them spiraling towards oblivion.

Can Jesse and Celine survive? Their conflict is surprising because they feel like the right match. Working directly with Hawke and Delpy on the script, Linklater holds back the essential information for a while. No one stops to explain the past difficulties in detail, and quick anecdotes fill in the missing years. Celine’s concerns about sacrificing her individuality are strange at first, but they’ve built up over time. The ultimate argument is painful and nasty, and it’s tricky because there’s no clear winner. A lesser movie would encourage us to pick the person who’s right, and there’s no simple escape in this battle. Jesse seems like the rational guy, but he’s also passive aggressive. Her feminist slant may be over the top, but a key moment at the hotel clarifies the reasons for it. In the lobby, a devoted reader asks Jesse to sign her book and then asks for Celine’s signature. This moment has probably occurred numerous times in the past. He’s turned the origins of their relationship into successful books, which creates a myth for adoring readers. It’s like fans of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova approaching them and thinking they’re the characters from Once. When life goes sour, the onlookers will still be there. Celine is a professional who believes in her career, yet her character in the books only functions as an extension of Jesse.


Before Midnight is the most challenging film of the trilogy because it shows obstacles that can take down even the perfect couple. Once you have kids, small issues grow larger and can strain a relationship. Jesse and Celine aren’t the carefree teens of their first meeting or even the weary adults of their second. They know each other so well and recognize the imperfections that were hidden in 24-hour intervals. Within this mess, a glimmer of hope remains. Linklater intimately presents the bitterness yet avoids making it too bleak. When Jesse and Celine reconnect in the end, it’s ambiguous yet shows they aren’t ready to jump ship. Both remain side by side and are still trying to connect. This won’t be their last fight, but these issues needed to come out. Hawke and Delpy are remarkable at presenting such three-dimensional characters and not losing us when they act foolish. Their conversations feel improvised and authentic but are clearly written to achieve a specific reaction. They’re fictional creations yet strike us on a different level than most film characters. It’s haunting to watch Jesse and Celine lose their way, but those problems make their lives more poignant. It’s a thrilling feeling that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.

12 comments:

  1. "Before Midnight is the most challenging film of the trilogy" - Totally agree with this Dan. However, for me, that also makes it the most rewarding. Most of their relationship we've seen in the previous two films as been pretty fairytale but it was important there was more conflict here. I think to have another film of them just shooting the breeze and fawning over each other would have been a bit stale. At least here we see what it's like to be a real couple and that their actions, however romantic, have had consequences.
    Great review of a great film. Good work Dan.

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    1. Thanks Chris. I agree that what makes this film intriguing is the way it connects to the challenges faced by so many couples. After nine years together, there's no chance everything will be perfect. Delpy and Hawke are so good at making them feel like a real couple, and we feel the weight of their experiences after the last film.

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  2. Excellent review! I totally agree with you that this is that rare treat where the sequels are not unnecessary but feel completely organic in relation to the original. I recently reviewed this on my blog too. I watched all three in succession and must say, it was such a rewarding experience.

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    1. I'll definitely have to check out your reviews. I didn't watch all three again but have watched the others multiple times. They're easy to watch again because so much is packed into each one. Thanks!

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  3. Great review. This is certainly the best film of the year and man... I really hope the entire trilogy gets released on Criterion unless a fourth film will be in the works... nine years from now. The third act was just intense not because of what they've become but the fact that neither person are wrong but are having a difficult time compromising. There were moments were I felt gutted and it hurt. There is truly no better film that is out right now and I think people need to see this. Especially as I think it's something the Academy should look into.

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    1. It's my favorite of the year too, but I give the caveat that I've seen a limited number of 2013 films. That will change now that a lot of the big early movies are coming out. It's so tricky to decide who's truly "right" in the final act. It keeps changing as new information comes out, and I love that part of it. I'd love to see that Criterion set. Thanks!

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  4. I agree with you Dan that this is a great acting showcase for both Delpy and Hawke Their extended take when they are driving is amazing. I like that this movie shows us their problems, and not be just another hey were now 40 comedy. It delves into those issues that many couples face. Between Sunrise and Sunset Jesse and Celine haven't seen eachother so picking up that romantic spark wasn't hard. In Midnight. The two have lived together since the end of Sunset and a lot more things can happen when you live with someone for that long. Great Review

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    1. Vern, good points about it being so different than a 40+ comedy. It's an unflinching look at a couple that's had a difficult time yet is still trying to make it work.

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  5. I hate to be predictable and unoriginal, but 'Before Midnight' is my favorite film of the year too. I have to owe up to a certain subjectivity though - I watched all these films as they were released in the theaters, and I am about a year older than the main characters. I wonder if I would have the same feelings otherwise. Trying to be objective, when I saw 'Before Midnight' a few months back, I thought some fans would respond more negatively because of the change in narrative format (e.g., bringing in other characters), including the nature of the "cliffhanger" at the end. But it seems I was wrong.

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    1. Steven, I've heard a few grumbles about the ending and the other characters. However, I agree that most are accepting it and consider Before Midnight one of the year's best films. I'm a little younger than the characters at 37, but I can understand the challenges that arrive when kids enter the picture. Real life is always there to slow down the idealistic side of us. I'm right with you on this movie.

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  6. This is a universal X-ray of bourgeois love, one that in a few decades will get around to something like Amour.

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    1. Interesting thought. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to see them in an Amour-like film. Of course, I'd still check it out.

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