More successfully than in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series and more legitimately than in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, Richard Linklater has been faithfully charting how time and age changes characters (his true antecedents are the talking films of Eric Rohmer and Michael Apted’s documentary series Up). He follows the story of a romance through a series of films of which Before Midnight is the third in eighteen years. 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset were romantic, lovely films – the first full of the excitement of youthful idealism and the second more urgent and wary of life’s difficulties – which charted the development of two characters as they and the actors playing them (and writing their dialogue along with Linklater) aged. This resulted in two surprisingly truthful and dialogue-heavy films which are both absolutely captivating in their own ways. The third film picks the story up nine years on and both Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) are in their forties.
If you have seen the previous two then chances are you will not want the third one to be spoiled. And justifiably so. It is rare for a series of films to not only maintain but also increase one’s emotional attachment to fictional characters. So much so that while a third film was never out of place (and indeed a possible fourth, fifth and sixth), there was always a risk that it would sell its characters short and, worse still, tarnish the fantastic and note-perfect ending to Before Sunset. However, there’s not much point in writing a serious review if you can’t go into detail so turn away now if necessary.
Jesse did miss his plane and he and Celine have been together ever since. They have two twin daughters and they are on their last day of a six-week holiday in Greece. However, Jesse and Celine’s relationship is far from what it was in the last two films. The typical problems of a long-term relationship are almost immediately evident and will become more and more so as the film continues.
The third film is harsher than its predecessors. It accepts that the romance of the first two films was an almost idyllic and rather dated phenomenon – after all, nowadays the younger Jesse could have simply found Celine on any one of those new fangled social networking sites. This is addressed early on through a young Greek couple (Ariane Labed and Yiannis Papadopoulos) that have been apart spatially and yet were never technically separated. They also have a cavalier attitude to their relationship, that it is fun now but not destined to last forever. This is far from a hopeful message for Jesse and Celine, one made even more melancholy by a subsequent, heartbreaking monologue from another Greek housemate, powerfully played by Xenia Kalogeropoulou. This is the key subject of Before Midnight and it addresses it to quietly devastating effect. A long-term romantic relationship, though not a dated concept in itself, is a difficult thing to maintain in the modern world and petty resentments and vicious arguments may be as common as moments of genuine warmth and passion. Indeed, the sequences in which Jesse and Celine just walk and talk feel like rare events, both for the too often distracted characters and for an audience that hasn’t seen them do it in nine years. This gives these scenes a highly melancholic air and they are worth savouring.
Sadly, Jesse and Celine are not entirely the same people – they have entered middle age, they are noticeably careworn and their relationship is a lot less surefooted. Happy, casual scenes (of “just bullshitting” as Jesse describes them) often give way to arguments and vicious accusations. Far from the easy communication of the first two films, it now seems that Jesse and Celine can barely understand each other anymore, frequently missing the point of what the other is saying or reading veiled attacks in each other’s suggestions. However, their arguments do not have the ironic showboating of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but a horrible realism that is all too recognisable. Having created such an attachment to these characters and their relationship, it is devastating to see how time has changed it though it was an inevitability we all preferred to ignore. The film refuses to shy away from Jesse and Celine’s very real problems, making it a sober, somewhat brave film. It is a very powerful reappraisal of Jesse and Celine’s relationship and a realistic depiction (complemented brilliantly with some very long takes and scenes) of any long-term relationship. Before Midnight avoids the wishful thinking and addresses, with sadness but acceptance, the uglier side of any romance.
Having said that, it remains a Jesse and Celine film and the two characters (and actors) remain thoroughly charming and the film is still thought provoking and witty, filled with perfectly rendered and believable dialogue. Though it is tougher and more resigned than the previous two, it remains an enjoyable and worthy addition to the series, which seems to be getting wiser and wiser with each instalment. When it ends, it leaves its audience sadder not only because of its melancholy ending but also because it’ll probably be another nine years before we can spend time with them again.