Sundance Review: Before Midnight


There is an ebb and flow to the laughter between the men and women of my theater, during Before Midnight. As Jesse makes a salient point about the manic nature of women, the men laugh. When Celine talks about the self-serving nature of men, the women laugh. Sometimes between the (now married) couple`s reminiscing, philosophizing, and bickering, something particularly universal and poignant is said that makes the men and women laugh in unison.

Before Midnight isn’t a romance. It’s a war between man and woman, each battling for righteousness and pride. The two lovers stand like titans on the screen, echoing our own complaints about the opposing sex. Words are thrown like punches, and when they go down together, the audience claps in unison.

[This review was posted as part of our 2013 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Due to some complications, a second review was written to coincide with the theatrical release. That can be found here.]

Before Midnight
Director: Richard Linklater
Rating: R
Release Date: May 24, 2013

Nearly a decade has passed since Before Sunset and even more since Before Sunrise, which contains the chance meeting in Vienna between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julia Delpy) that started the unlikely trilogy. The passing of time won’t be lost on audiences. Hawke and Delpy wear it on their faces. The red of Jesse’s beard is gone. He now sports a protruding bulbous gut. Celine has gained weight too, as it often happens after giving birth to two children (twin girls). Now in their forties, Jesse and Celine are no longer the faces of young, passionate romance that they once were. Now, they are the perfect parents. Something to aspire but not something to be labeled romantic or sexy.

Before Midnight opens with Jesse saying goodbye to his son, the one he left behind in Chicago after divorcing his first wife for Celine. It’s a touching portrait of a father who can’t bear to see his son go, and the effect this moment has on him doesn’t fade away throughout the film (as it is with life). The camera then follows Jesse to a car parked outside the airport, where Celine and their two daughters await. The remainder of the film goes something like: car ride, sitting, lunch, walking, more sitting, and then some real high-stakes sitting to bring the film to a climax. As with Sunset and Sunrise, Midnight remains a compelling film despite no actual conflict until the last act, one filled with tension that never graced the previous two films.

There is a lack of action but never a lack of compelling beauty, which comes from the gorgeous countryside of Greece and the genuine chemistry between Hawke and Delpy. As much as I loved Delpy’s interaction with Adam Goldberg and Chris Rock in her 2 Days in Paris and New York, the relationship she has with Hawke is profound and uncanny in its realism. I’ve never seen a film where a couple arguing half-naked appeared so genuine. In the film’s darker moments, I felt like an unwanted voyeur. In the film’s lighter moments, Jesse and Celine are dear friends that I can almost reach out and touch. Such is the naturalism in performance and direction contained within Before Midnight.

Richard Linklater gives Before Midnight larger, composed images to complement the wider scale of emotion in this entry. Celine and Jesse don’t simply live for each other, in this film. The world is bigger than their love. Linklater opens the door to new characters that reflect on their relationship. Widows mourn their old flames and a young couple hints at what Before Sunrise may have been if Jesse and Celine lived in the era of Skype. The 30 or so minute middle of the film that finds Celine and Jesse having lunch at a gorgeous, historic estate brings so much to the entirety of Before Midnight. German cinematographer Walter Lassally, playing the role of the estate’s host, gives one of the warmest performances I’ve ever seen. I love this man.

Long after the film ended, one of the many brilliant monologues stuck with me. Jesse, evaluating parenthood, reflects back on his teenage years, concluding that he wanted life to speed up so he could move out of his parents’ house. Now, he only wants life to slow down so he can enjoy the years with his wife and children that seem to slide right past him. His son (of a previous marriage) is now mature enough to not need Jesse’s omnipresence and old enough to offer his dad advice back. This isn’t just an observation of Jesse’s; it’s a truth about life that fills every moment of Before Midnight. It’s a film about accepting the flaws of the life we chose, finding happiness where we can, and enjoying the passing minutes that fill the day.

Jesse and Celine may not be quite as beautiful and young as they once where, but that was never what made them an envious couple. It’s the rapid imagination they share: The private performances they put on for each other, the elaborate theories that they entertain, and the always conscious conversations that march instead of wander. Maybe a decade ago I wanted a romance like Jesse and Celine’s, but now I want to be their son.