The smarts at work in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight are evident in the first scene. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), now 41 years old and sporting some impressively unkempt hair, waits with his now 13-year-old son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) in an airport boarding area, before Hank gets on a plane to rejoin his mother in the U.S. — i.e., the wife Jesse needed to get back to in 2004’s Before Sunset. Father and son are in a provincial airport in Greece, and Jesse clearly feels more angst about their pending separation than his amiable, unfazed son.
What comes out is that there was a long-lasting, real-world consequence to the romantic wish fulfillment that concluded Before Sunset. Jesse left his toddler son in New York to be with Celine (Julie Delpy) in Paris, and the fact that he missed much of his son’s childhood — and that the kid’s adolescence is similarly slipping away — now gnaws at him.
In a deft bit of visual exposition, the camera follows Jesse outside the airport — where we see Celine waiting by the car at the curb. And what’s this, two adorable little girls in the back of the car, each with a mop of Celine-like blonde curls?
The ensuing 10-minute car ride, shot almost entirely in one take, is the first great scene in Before Midnight. It’s a pleasure to check in on Jesse and Celine again, nine years later: this opener is so accomplished that it could almost stand on its own, telling us everything we need to know about how these two characters have grown — or hit a wall — in the nine years since Before Sunset. The witty dialogue brings us up to date on their lives without lapsing into mere exposition. It also discreetly establishes the tensions lurking in their relationship that will culminate in an epic blowout argument later in the movie.
As with the first two films, Linklater wrote the screenplay for Before Midnight with Hawke and Delpy.* It’s admirable how this trio is willing to risk alienating fans of the previous two films with Before Midnight: this isn’t a charming movie about the possibilities of a first encounter or the renewal of second chances. Instead we’re dropped into the grind of a long-term relationship. The movie will end on a note of romantic affirmation, but just barely; both the characters and the audience will take an emotional battering before we reach that point.
Moreover, the script is almost perverse in situating Celine and Jesse in a setting that’s like a fantasy of the good life, straight out of a Sunday Travel section — a picturesque villa in Greece, at the end of a month-long vacation, where one might expect the couple to be at their most untroubled — only to insist that even here there’s no escaping the strains of a de facto marriage.
So much about the script is so smart that it’s a puzzle that what follows the car ride is the flattest stretch of screen time in the entire trilogy. A long outdoor meal Celine and Jesse share with their Greek friends is almost interminable. These movies have always been fond of refracting Celine and Jesse’s experience through everything around them, but here the device sinks to its nadir. The other couples present and the other characters’ dialogue all bluntly comment on Jesse and Celine’s situation in an egregiously obvious fashion. It’s all atypically broad and even banal for these films, and Linklater doesn’t help matters by dutifully giving each new character a close-up as they declaim their lines in a theatrical, almost hammy manner.
The movie rights itself when Celine and Jesse break off by themselves. It’s their last night of vacation; their Greek friends have bestowed the gift of a night in a boutique hotel on them, and the Greeks will even look after the two little girls. As generous and well intentioned as this gift is, the viewer has good cause to suspect that all will not go well. Jesse and Celine have a hit a juncture in their relationship where their passion more readily asserts itself in arguing rather than sex.
In the 30-minute argument that is the movie’s climax, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke are determined to be honest about the vicissitudes of a long-term relationship, particularly one afflicted with a mid-life malaise. The argument doesn’t just save the movie, it is the movie, or the reason to have made it. A viewer who laughs and winces while watching this, sinking ever lower in his seat, can only wonder, how bitter and piercing can Celine and Jesse’s exchanges become before irrevocable damage is done to their relationship? And how uncomfortable can the scene become before the audience loses the ability to laugh at the funny lines, before the movie becomes a colossal downer?
I laughed at the funny lines — up to a point. It’s amusing to see how Jesse, the renowned author and ostensibly the articulate one, retreats into sarcasm, while Celine’s wit is like a death ray, incinerating everything in sight. But Celine might actually have too many good lines here. She reels off so many zingers that the dialogue starts to call attention to itself.
Throughout the trilogy, the free-flowing talk between Celine and Jesse has always felt spontaneous, even though the movies have always been tightly scripted; Hawke and Delpy’s performances always create the illusion that what we’re watching could have been improvised. But as the argument in the hotel room wears on, the pileup of devastating one-liners broke that illusion for me. For the first time in a scene between Jesse and Celine, I was conscious of lines in a screenplay, and of lines seeking applause. Perhaps there doesn’t need to be another Celine and Jesse movie.
Before Midnight has a coda that’s nicely understated, in keeping with how these films avoid forcing an emotional response from the audience. As the camera pulls away, it’s fitting that Celine and Jesse are still talking. (But of course. It’s what they do.)
What will it be like to look back on all three of the Celine and Jesse films, years from now? Our parting glimpse of Jesse and Celine here brings to mind the title of the New York Dolls’ 2006 comeback album, and the wry wisdom contained therein — wisdom that you probably have to have lived a little to fully appreciate: One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This.
You can watch the trailer for Before Midnight here: