Just about the closest cinematic parallel to Richard Linklater’s ongoing story of Jesse and Celine, as chronicled at roughly nine-year intervals in Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and now Before Midnight, is the late Francois Truffaut’s wonderful Antoine Doinel series. Like the romantic adventures of Truffaut’s alter-ego, their story is full of romance, reality, hope, despair, naivety, hard-won wisdom and, fascinatingly, maddeningly watchable.
The pair, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who are much more co-conspirators than mere actors in someone else’s screenplay, first briefly encountered each other in 1995’s Before Sunrise, a chance meeting on a train bound for Vienna that blossomed into, what exactly? Thwarted romance? A glorious memory of a sweet night spent walking and talking, best never relived?
By the time the pair crossed paths again in Paris in 2004’s Before Sunset, he was a moderately successful novelist with a book based on their story and, after Celine showed up at a reading (of course, at Shakespeare and Company), the pair spend another night in each other’s company, admitting that their subsequent relationships have never lived up to the promise of that fleeting meeting.
Again, audiences were left tantalized by the prospect of what might never be.
As Before Midnight opens, it’s clear that the pair, now in their 40s, not only live together in Paris but have twin daughters. They’re on a family holiday at a writers’ retreat in Greece and he’s obviously upset at the airport when he sees his son from his former marriage back off to his mother in the USA.
Even under the magical sun, we quickly glean we’re not in the fairytale setting of Vienna or Paris. Things are different when you live with someone and the latest edition of the story is, in a sense, an extended meditation on how romantic love survives – or not – over time.
“The film was a bigger challenge in that you had to dig deeper into this stage of their life and make it more interesting, and that’s why a lot of romantic movies don’t want to go where we wanted to go,” agrees Linklater.
“We’d had these more obvious romantic encounters in the previous two films. They were very different, yet they both had this romantic notion. The question here is can you do that at 41 in the situation that Celine and Jesse find themselves in? At the beginning of a relationship, you’re bending yourself to fit in with and to please the other person. So you withhold a lot but, hopefully over time, you come to accept each others’ rougher edges.”
Certainly there are some scenes in Before Midnight that will have long-term couples wincing in recognition, even as they chuckle. In a brilliantly extended scene set on a would-be romantic night in a nearby hotel, simmering tensions rise volcanically to the surface, subsiding momentarily as words of love are spoken only to rise again in even greater force. Both of them, it’s abundantly clear, are just as adept at a genuinely funny quip as they are at twisting the emotional knife. It’s charming but not disarming, and surely not since Tracy and Hepburn have a pair of actors been this funny and this vicious.
“For me, I saw it as how people negotiate, and how they agree to disagree. You either break up, or you learn to deal,” believes Linklater. “Life gets more absurd and more tragic the older you get. In this movie, there is a melancholy, but there’s kind of a wonderful recognition of each other in there, too. They are still making each other laugh and that is hopeful.”
Fairly remarkably, Before Midnight is a grown-up film in which people talk a lot. That’s not going to be to everybody’s taste, clearly, but it’s certainly nothing to apologize for. If you loved the previous two films then I bet you’ll love this too. Oh, and dig out those Truffaut films as well, why don’t you? You won’t regret it, I promise.
Review by Kevin Bourke
Where: The Cornerhouse, Oxford Road, Manchester