Eighteen years have passed since that fateful train-ride in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, when the young Jesse and Celine first met and spent all night walking around Vienna. It’s been nine years since Jesse and Celine met for the second time in Before Sunset and made one of the most important decisions of their lives. Now we meet up with Jesse and Celine once more in Before Midnight, but this time the two characters have been together for the interim. For the first time in Linklater’s extraordinary series the only people playing catch-up are the audience.
In some ways, it’s a less eventful film that its predecessors—so far as these films are about characters walking around and talking (which is often eventful enough in and of itself)—with less definitive growth in the characters during the time we spend with them. Instead, Before Midnight creates a portrait of a long-term relationship built on incredible love and deep connection, but harbouring equally deep scars and resentment over the consequences of the decision made at the end of Before Sunset.
We join up with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) on vacation in Greece, with Jesse sending his son from his previous marriage back to his ex-wife. The problems between Jesse and Celine become immediately clear during a bravura single-take car ride scene. Jesse feels distant from his son and would like to live closer to him. Meanwhile Celine has been offered a job that would make such a move virtually impossible. They’re not insurmountable problems, but we get a sense that there is a base of resentment here; that the way things played out over the last nine years have made it difficult to confront these problems head-on.
We learn, Jesse is in fact on a writer’s retreat at the home of an elderly British colleague. There we are introduced to several other characters that provide a greater range of interaction between the characters. In their conversations we get to learn not only a bit more about what Jesse and Celine have been up to for the last nine years, but we also get to see their now relatively mature relationship set against a number of other relationships at various stages of growth.
A series of conversations later and we get to the centerpiece of the film: an argument. It’s a hurtful, funny and incredibly raw scene that goes on well beyond the point of any possible enjoyment. It’s crushing; plain and simple. It reveals the difficulty of maintaining a relationship in which a blockage of communication has allowed deep issues to fester and grow in the characters’ minds. It’s all the more difficult to watch because both characters are so intelligent and know so well how to push each other’s buttons. Of course, as difficult as it is, the scene is also extremely engaging.
The endings of the previous films in the series have left some ambiguity. Will they see each other again? Will Jesse really stay in Paris? Before Midnight leaves a very different kind of ambiguity, but within that is revealed a kind of beauty. This is what real relationships look like. They’re often built on that initial moment of meeting. That connection built early on. After that, though, the idealization becomes background, making way for the reality of the day-to-day. The problems become more serious, and sometimes more devastating, but the love has grown to become something so much more important and meaningful. As a portrait of love in a long-term relationship, Before Midnight is something very special, and one can only hope that we get to check in on Jesse and Celine once more in nine years.