To follow up Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two of the best character pieces ever made, was always going to be a challenge. Keeping that quality and that momentum going into a third film made another nine years later seemed like an insurmountable challenge. With Before Midnight, I wanted to temper my expectations, because I didn’t want to be disappointed. A good (even great) follow up to a spectacular film can be buried under the weight of expectations, and if Before Midnight was going to be good (or even great), I wanted to give it a fair shot.
In the end, I wasn’t able to temper my expectations. I saw Before Midnight expecting to see Jesse and Celine, nine years later, just as witty and compelling as ever. I expected to witness brilliant writing performed brilliantly, with brilliant direction keeping everything… well, brilliant.
I was not disappointed.
Director: Richard Linklater
Release Date: May 24, 2013
Going into Before Midnight, I was partly convinced that it would take place over the course of three minutes. At the beginning of Before Sunset, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) talks about a novel that he wants to write a book that takes place over the course of a pop song, and I thought that maybe the team would just go for that. Before Sunrise is a near-perfect look at one night together, and Before Sunset is a near-perfect real-time recreation of a reunion. There were two options: go big or go small. I didn’t actually think it would go for the latter, but some part of me hoped it would. Instead, the film goes bigger. In it, Jesse has written a second book and is working on his third. He describes it, how it’s bigger than anything that has come before, with more characters and more action. It’s on an entirely different level, and so is Before Midnight. Not in terms of quality but of scope.
I saw the previous films only a few days prior to watching Before Midnight, and I’m glad I did that for a number of reasons. The most important is that I’m finally old enough to start appreciating them. Had I seen the movies years ago, I would have applauded the beautifully minimalist camerawork and unparalleled characterization and dialogue, but the underlying emotions are too complex and realistic for an immature teenager. That’s not to say I’m somehow emotionally more mature than everyone else (I’m still too young for a film about 41 year olds and their troubled marriage to truly hit), but now I can feel what these films are going for rather than just seeing it.
In the context of Before Midnight, my youth doesn’t even matter. Perhaps the highlight of the film is a conversation about love involving people of various ages. Their ideas offer Jesse and Celine’s 18-year cinematic relationship new perspectives. Whether you’re in your twenties or your eighties, the film speaks for you and your generation. While I don’t agree with the way the young Greek couple sees the world, I know people who would. These companions add greater scope and significance to the discussion about love, resulting in conversations that are more broadly relevant than what could have come from two characters talking for 108 minutes.
But even if it had just been 108 minutes of Jesse and Celine talking, I wouldn’t have minded too much. The other reason I’m glad I saw the films so close together is because it made me realize just how incredible the performances by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are. I realized while watching Before Sunset that Jesse and Celine are possibly the two most consistent and compelling characters to be put on screen. Seeing the three films practically back to back to back is bizarre. It feels like Richard Linklater and a camera crew are just showing up every nine years to check in on these people.
And because of that, every time there was a cut, it surprised me just a little bit. The cuts reveal that Before Midnight is more than an incredibly elaborate multi-camera setup. It all feels so real that any evidence of artifice is jarring and saddening. Because they are more than characters; they are people. I said characters before, but I didn’t mean it. Jesse and Celine are not really characters. There’s not a single faltering moment in the committed performances in any of the three films. Even as the actors have changed, their characters have stayed the same. Jesse and Celine’s 18-year history may as well be Ethan Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s. To think that they don’t go home to each other at the end of the day is shocking, and I imagine that their actual significant others feel at least somewhat uneasy about their chemistry.
In Before Midnight, that chemistry is still on display, even as resentment replaces spontaneity. Celine and Jesse are married and they have kids, but the flame that made the first two films so romantic is all but extinguished. It’s the feeling that I’m too young to relate to, but it’s one that’s conveyed so impeccably that I don’t need to know it myself. I can feel it through them, and it’s heartbreaking. Jesse is pulled towards his son, who lives in America, while Celine wants to keep the family in Europe and pursue her own career. It’s a difficult situation, and there’s no clear way to proceed. The kids shape their parents’s lives. The friends who the couple spent their time with also affect them. This relationship which was so intimate is now public.
All of these things add up to a film that stands with its predecessors as shining examples of dramatic cinema. This is filmmaking at its finest, and I have trouble believing that another film will come along this year that tops it.
I feel conflicted about the number you see below you, which is among the highest I’ve ever given. On another scale, I might have given Before Midnight a 10/10 or five stars or whatever. But to break a 95, a film must change the way I think of film, to truly affect my relationship with the medium. Before Midnight doesn’t do that, but it does everything else. Regardless, Before Midnight is a film that you absolutely must see. It is truly spectacular, and with it, the Before films are cemented as one of the most perfect trilogies in cinema history.
There’s a different sort of tone to Before Midnight given what’s happened in the last nine years and what’s at stake on this particular day of Jesse and Celine’s lives. If Before Sunrise was about young love and love at first sight, and Before Sunset was about second chances with the one that got away, Before Midnight is about what happens to complicated relationships that have lasted this long. Do Jesse and Celine have something that goes deeper than just flirtation and brief encounters, or is this the death of their magic? (And is the idea of love as magic bullshit?)
Before Midnight is the biggest movie in the series so far, expanding its conversation about the nature of relationships outside of Jesse and Celine’s thoughts on the matter. There’s a wonderful scene in the film that’s reminiscent of Plato’s The Symposium, in which different people talk about their ideas of love. That riff on Plato makes what happens afterward seem like a bit of peripatetic philosophy about love, which is really what all these films have been. Like one of Plato’s dialogues, the philosophy comes in the form of a work of art; unlike the dialogues, there’s no pedantic argument toward a divine answer. What we’re left with instead are the beautiful complications of real life. Everywhere the film dazzles with this sort of undeniable authenticity.
This is a movie that reminds you why you like its characters, and why you’d want to see more of them. But more than that, Before Midnight is the kind of movie that makes you remember why you fall in love with movies. 92 — Spectacular