Nine years have passed since our last visit with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), an astonishing 18 years have skipped by since our first meeting, and I can’t think of another film series that better captures the passage of time than Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy. What started as a sweet and fanciful romance has evolved into one of the most relatable, perceptive, and in the case of latest entry Before Midnight, heart-wrenching studies of relationship dynamics to grace the screen.
Given that the last film, 2004’s Before Sunset, left us with no clear idea of the direction Jesse and Celine’s lives would take, it’s difficult to talk about story specifics in Midnight without giving away some of its most enjoyable surprises. Little has changed in the structure of the film however, and we’re once again asked to simply observe the meandering conversations of the duo in an evocative location (this time a sleepy Grecian village), and experience drama through dialogue. And oh boy, once the dialogue kicks into high gear, it’s like a freight train pointed right at your heart.
Again, trying not to give too much away, Jesse and Celine have grown more in the last nine years than they did in the previous nine, and for that reason Midnight might be the most effective of Linklater’s trilogy. The sanctity of this apparently perfect pairing, as set up 18 years ago, feels like it’s being undermined from every corner in the film’s slow-burn opening act, with any romantic idealism eroded by the cold rationality of youth, the contented acceptance of middle-aged Gen-X, and the omnipresence of mortality and decay.
Jesse and Celine, while still grappling with self-involvement, have much more to consider than themselves this time around. After a slightly more expansive opening, the second half of the film narrows to the couple only, and more than ever the locations say as much as the words. They mourn the passage of their youth while strolling amongst crumbling ruins, gleefully discuss the joys of their present lives in quaint, hedge rimmed alleys, and noisily debate their problems in a stagnant, characterless hotel room.
It’s this last location where Midnight’s most effective section takes place. Having in a sense grown alongside these characters, always remembering the beautiful spontaneity of that night in Vienna 18 years ago, to see Jesse and Celine tear themselves apart in such a banal setting is a painful, but absolutely riveting, experience. Every biting comment is heavy with genuine stakes and watching it play out feels almost too voyeuristic to handle, but there’s such rawness to the performances that you can’t look away. It’s certainly not as hopeful as the last two films, but the unvarnished honesty is a change that Linklater needed to make.
Whether or not we’ll find ourselves encountering Jesse and Celine again in another nine years is anyone’s guess, and I suspect that even Linklater, Hawke and Delpy wouldn’t have an answer. Before Midnight unsurprisingly leaves much unanswered but doesn’t feel unfinished, and only another nine years of growth from the filmmakers (and their audience) will determine if there’s more to say. Moving away from the fairy-tale beginnings and closer to the challenges of a real relationship, the series itself has matured into a complex, many flavoured stew. Just like adult life is supposed to be.