Before Midnight – Review


Richard Linklater’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker, storyteller

Having seen Before Midnight months ago during the annual South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Tex., there was just something about its heart and realness that I had to revisit it again. And with the outpouring of praise I gave it when I recapped it during SXSW, I also made a correlation that other critics and writers expressed in their reviews; how Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is much like Michael Apted’s Up series in its exploration of people over the passage of time. For those not familiar with Apted’s non-fictional work, the genesis was interviewing fourteen children, all age seven, and then following up with them every seven years. The process began in 1964 with Seven Up. (The latest entry in the series, 56 Up, played on British television and had a limited engagement in the US earlier this year.)

When director Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy made Before Sunrise in 1995, the three didn’t have a eureka moment during the production and come up with a plan to have it be the first of a series of episodes involving their two characters. What it ended up becoming, though, was one of the most thoughtful and introspective looks at love, and probably the best romantic film of the ‘90s.

Sunrise‘s ambiguous ending left the door open for a possible follow-up, but there was no serious consideration to make a sequel. Honestly, who makes a sequel to a romantic film? Yet the actors had such a supreme appreciation for their characters that it led the stars and director to revisit the characters Jesse and Celine nine years later in Before Sunset. Now, nine years after that release we arrive at a second sequel that allows us to see how much their characters have evolved since 2004.

One of the great aspects about the series is the tonal depiction of love. Even if you’ve never seen the previous entries, anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship can quickly pick up on the themes. As I sat in the acclaimed Paramount Theater back in March I was enthralled with the verbal discourse that permeated every scene. It was if I were attending a play and having the dialogue envelope me. Those who love dialogue and actors who can singsong their way through pages and pages of words and have it appear as improvisational will be duly impressed with Before Midnight. As for the direction, Richard Linklater’s work is simple. He makes great use of long, extended takes, including a 15-minute car ride in which the master shot is a singular two-shot of Jesse (Hawke) driving and Celine (Delpy) riding shotgun. It’s so simplistic in its depiction that you almost forget there’s not a single edit – save for one cutaway of some Greek ruins.

Picking with the Up correlation established in the opening paragraph, each installment in the Before series shows different phases of love. In Before Sunrise it is that love-at-first-sight feeling where twenty-somethings get all googly-eyed and it’s romance of the now. With Before Sunset the regret that both Jesse and Celine felt begets optimism of a love reconnection. Also ending in ambiguous fashion like its predecessor, but indicating that the spark is still there, the beginning of Before Midnight elucidates that much has changed with the two lovebirds. The nine-year gap shows that both have been relationship heavy. The Honeymoon Ending, which is a prerequisite ending of romantic comedies, has long passed and now we see them as a married couple. And just like any long-term committed couple will agree, it ain’t all moonbeams and lollipops.

If one were to pinpoint the signature moment in Before Midnight it would be the centerpiece hotel room conversation, a one-on-one between Jesse and Celine. It’s the kind of conversation that will be universally accepted. Those who are in long-term relationships may find the situation parallels a moment they have once experienced. Take out the hotel room and replace it with a home study or bedroom and it will have the same desired effect. The twenty-minute sequence has a certain ebb and flow as if these were two boxers going through a feeling out process before landing an emotional haymaker later on. The scene gives the impression of a real-life fight, not something magically concocted by Hollywood. The tension that exists makes us wonder if Jesse and Celine are nearing the end of a journey that began 18 years ago.

In the tradition of Woody Allen’s filmography, where his output can be defined by the location of the film – be it New York, London, Paris, et al. – Richard Linklater has had a different foreign locale act as a supporting character in each Before film. Going from Vienna to Paris and now Greece, the locations provide color but also could serve as metaphors to a degree. It does seem unique that Jesse and Celine’s apparent dissolution of marriage would occur in a tourist destination for a country that finds itself bankrupt.

Is this Linklater providing a subtle nudge that marriage is emotionally bankrupt the longer spent together? Probably an overreach but worth discussion nonetheless.

This may come across as hyperbolic, but I don’t care. The Before series, but more to the point Before Midnight, is Richard Linklater’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker, as a storyteller. One can only hope that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy aren’t done telling the story of Jesse and Celine.

While it’s easy to avoid true cinema in favor of escapism, one must never forget about substance. Not that there’s anything wrong with escapism, but rare is it that we see something honest in its depiction. I seriously doubt any other film this year will reach the emotional beats of Before Midnight. It’s such a beautiful exercise about love, about relationships, and it is a film that will continue to resonate in the years that follow.

Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater
Notable Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

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