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With: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally, Ariane Labed, Yiannis Papadopoulos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis
Written by: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Directed by: Richard Linklater
MPAA Rating:
Language: R for sexual content/nudity and language
Running Time: 108
Date: 24/05/2013

Before Midnight (2013)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Flawed Couple

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Richard Linklater's third film Before Sunrise (1995) was an exceptional twentysomething romance, more thoughtful than most and with just the right touch of romantic fancy and longing. It could have ended there, but nine years later, Linklater and his two stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy created a sequel, Before Sunset. This one was more urgent, with real life creeping in around the romantic longing; characters had more of a history, and more regret. I chose it as the second best movie of 2004, and one of the ten best movies of the decade.

Nine more years have passed, and here is Before Midnight, which recently closed the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival. It's certainly a contender for the year's best film, but in the larger picture, these movies have now become something for the ages. Obvious comparisons are Michael Apted's Up documentaries -- the latest of which, 56 Up, opened just a couple of months ago -- and Francois Truffaut's "Antoine Doinel" cycle, in that the characters are seen aging on film. But there's more to this.

I know that people who care about these characters don't want to know what happens, just as I didn't before I saw the movie, so if you're one of them, stop reading now.

Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are now officially a couple. Jesse has divorced his old wife, and he and Celine know how to find each other again. They even have an adorable pair of twin girls together, while Jesse has a son from his previous marriage. Jesse's books are best-sellers, while Celine is thinking of changing jobs. They live in Europe now, but we meet them in the summertime while staying in Greece at the home of a famous (fictitious) writer (Walter Lassally, who is actually an Oscar-winning cinematographer).

As the movie begins, Jesse's summer visitation with his son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), is ending, and they are saying farewell at the airport. It's an emotional moment, and leaves Jesse filled with regret. He mentions a desire to be closer to his son, which Celine interprets as a wish to move back to the United States. The drive from the airport back to the house lasts a while, and Linklater films it all in one shot, while Delpy and Hawke act out reams of dialogue. During this scene, we learn all about where they are now, completely naturally, without a jot of exposition, and the conflict for the rest of the movie is ingeniously set up. (As with the other two movies, Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater co-wrote the screenplay together.)

The bulk of Before Midnight, like its predecessors, consists of dialogue, but the dialogue is alive and dynamic. It serves to drive the emotions and the story forward in the way a chase scene or a shootout would in a normal movie. Other major scenes include one with Jesse describing a new book idea to his Greek hosts, and a dinner table conversation. Then, as a gift from their hosts, Jesse and Celine have been given a special night in a hotel room with massages, etc. We follow them as they casually walk there, and the movie climaxes in the room. This sequence contains the movie's strongest visual motifs, such as characters regarding objects in the room. But these objects are less symbols for anything than simply amplifiers of the characters' emotional state.

We have seen Jesse and Celine age 18 years, and it's fascinating to see them learn and change, but it's perhaps more fascinating to see them grow around each other, like two plants sharing the same pot. This is where the "Before" series goes that no other series ever went. (Even Ingmar Bergman, who revisited the characters from Scenes from a Marriage in Saraband, ended up focusing on the younger generation.) The relationship between these two characters in these movies is difficult and highly analyzed, but still rooted in love.

I think the major difference between Before Midnight and its predecessors is the lack of hope... not that it's a hopeless film, but that the other two movies were about looking forward to a life with someone who is your perfect soul mate. This movie is about what happens when you find that person, and of course, nothing's perfect. Perhaps it's more of a movie for people in their 40s, or at least people who have struggled through long, successful relationships. It's not a typical Hollywood romance with butterflies at the end.

However, Jesse and Celine still have a great deal to talk about and many ideas to discuss, and -- like any relationship -- they work hard at theirs. Here hope comes in not in the form of some wide-open future full of bliss, but in the simple act of deciding not to give up, and to soldier on. Maybe we'll see more of them in another nine years. But if not, if things end here in this perfect trilogy, then that's enough to consider it as perhaps the greatest cinematic love story of all time.

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