It's been almost ten years since we last saw Jesse and Celine -- the chatty couple played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for three movies now -- but it took me all of five minutes into Before Midnight to fall back in love with them. That's the unique power of this series, overseen by director Richard Linklater and written in close collaboration by him and his two stars. No matter how long the gap between movies has been or how completely the characters' lives have changed, when Jesse and Celine turn to each other and start one of their famously epic conversations, it feels like no time has passed at all.
But, of course, time has passed and the characters' lives have changed. Since the slow fade out scored to Nina Simone's "Just in Time" that closed Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine have become a cohabitating couple, with a home in Paris and two little girls, but, significantly, no rings on their fingers -- they're committed partners that never walked down the aisle. We're caught up on the other details of their current existence during a long drive back from an airport in Greece -- where Jesse has dropped off his tweenaged son, Hank, to fly home to his now ex-wife back in the U.S. -- to the writer's retreat that has served as the family's summer vacation spot. Jesse's still an author, and has penned a successful sequel to his bestselling roman à clef novel inspired by his relationship with the French girl he met on a train almost two decades ago. Celine, meanwhile, works for an environmental organization, but is contemplating a major career change. Like any long-term couple, they're well settled into their routine and so their conversation has less to do with the hopes for the future they expressed in the first movie and the regrets about the past they covered in the second and are more tethered to the immediate demands of the now. Should they wake the sleeping girls in the backseat to see some Grecian ruins or let them nap? Is Celine's job switch a good or bad idea? They've also been together long enough to be able to tell what the other is thinking. Celine knows, for example, that Jesse has trouble saying goodbye to Hank and will thus once again float the idea of moving her and the girls back to America to be closer to him. And, sure enough, he not-so-casually slips that subject into their talk, initiating a conflict that will have enormous ramifications before the day is over and the clock strikes midnight.
Although Before Midnight follows the same day-in-the-life timeframe as its predecessors, rather than follow one long, fluid conversation, the movie is broken up into three acts. Act 1 is the car trip, while Act 2 is an extended sequence around the lunch table at the writer's retreat that allows other characters to get a word in edgewise for the first time in this series. Act 3 returns Jesse and Celine to center stage, as they take advantage of friends' offer of free babysitting make their way to a picturesque boutique hotel for a night off from parenthood. You might think that being alone for the first time all day would leave the two in the mood for love. Instead, we get another series first: the sight of Jesse and Celine fighting. Not squabbling, not bickering -- a real, no-holds-barred emotional (never physical, let's make that completely clear) assault fueled by all the slights, resentments and annoyances that periodically bubble up when you share your life with someone. It's a bracing, close-to-the-bone counterpoint to the beautiful (and beautifully naïve) romantic yearning that permeates the first two movies, to say nothing of the majority of movie romances, which always end before the actual work of coupledom begins. "You wanted these two together, you wanted these two in love?" the movie seems to be asking. "Well, here you are. This is love. This is romance."
And you know what? It is romantic. Not the fighting part, obviously, but just the honest acknowledgement that building a lasting relationship is hard work. It's not a groundbreaking concept, but it's rarely been as dramatized as effectively as it is here. I'm continually impressed by the naturalism of this series, the way the conversation ebbs and flows and changes direction on a dime without any trace of the screenwriters' hand. As Jesse and Celine, Hawke and Delpy talk a lot, yes, but they also listen -- really listen -- to each other and that connection between the actors makes their characters all the more real. The years that these two have spent together adds a new dynamic to Before Midnight in that neither one feels compelled to hold back, afraid that they'll quash their relationship before it begins. That baseline sense of comfort with each other is actually what allows them to take this particular fight as far as they do... though it does wind up going farther than either of them would like. Even at their angriest, however, they're still talking, still listening, still connecting and that's how you know they're still in love.
If I have a criticism about Before Midnight it's that I worry that the movie maybe invites us to side too much with Jesse, who frequently gets to act as the voice of moderation when Celine is flipping out. Then again, the fear that Delpy is bumping up against bitches-be-crazy caricature is mitigated somewhat by the fact that Hawke's Jesse still has some of the smugness that made him borderline insufferable as a twentysomething. He likes to think of himself as the peacemaker, but in fact his desire to keep things low-key is more often than not his passive-aggressive form of arguing. It's only by flipping out that Celine can hope to goad an emotional response out of him. These are the kind of nuances that come through when you've spent as much time with characters who are as familiar and yet still surprising as Jesse and Celine. We'll see a lot of fantasies this summer, but we'll be fortunate to be gifted with another work of fiction that's this honest, this true to life.
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