It has been 18 years since Jesse and Celine entered our lives and gave us snippets of what romance in the real world could be like. When we first saw them in Before Sunrise in 1995, they were young, ambitious, sly, cheeky, and sometimes clueless, talking about their childhoods and their dreams. Now, they are much older, married, with kids, and the world ahead of them seems more treacherous than welcoming. Times have changed them, but they are still the way we remember them.
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is still the joker, quick to tease, always the mitigator. Celine (Julie Delpy) is still the rational, aggressive one, taking things as they come, always looking at situations as what they could have been, not as what they are. In Before Midnight, these traits are amplified. It begins with Jesse at an airport with his son Hank from his first marriage. Hank is leaving for Chicago after spending the summer with his dad in Greece. Theirs is the kind of relationship that close-knit families would look down upon and broken families would kill to have; it’s neither here nor there, but we know its purpose. And then Jesse leaves the airport, and we see that Celine is waiting for him. This is one of the trilogy’s greatest surprises.
What’s also surprising about Before Midnight is where Richard Linklater takes us. After a long continuous take of Jesse and Celine talking in the car on the drive back from the airport (which is superbly paced, scripted, and acted), he brings his couple — and us — to a crowded villa where fellow writers have gathered to celebrate their books, their food, and their marriages (I say “crowded”, but there are only a handful of people. Crowded by Jesse’s and Celine’s standards). At once, we’re struck by the fact that there are many more characters to deal with now, but we are not meant to connect with them. They exist to provide Jesse and Celine — and us — with different perspectives on being in a relationship. There’s a young couple, barely scratching the surface of a deep and committed relationship. There’s a middle-aged couple — similar to Jesse and Celine — that embraces life and relishes in what it has to offer. And there is Patrick, a widower and owner of the villa, and his friend, an elderly single lady who has also lost the love of her life. There is joyous conversation and interaction at the dinner they all attend, and there is also pitch-perfect acting on the part of Hawke and Delpy to inform us that behind their smiles and laughter, things are not quite right.
Their friends have bought a hotel room for them to spend the night in, away from the crowd, perhaps to rekindle a dying flame that wasn’t as secret as they had hoped it would be. They leave the villa and decide to walk to the hotel. This walk, like all the walks in the Before trilogy, takes place in very long takes, and contains nothing but dialogue. Very clever dialogue. For me, this is where the movie kicks into gear properly, because Hawke and Delpy are at their most beautiful when they are alone together. Their walk revives the nostalgia of Sunrise and Sunset, and the exchange between the two characters, though aged, has lost none of its magic. They walk and talk, and laugh and tease, and they address issues of their past and present, without really focusing on what lies ahead. All the while, Greece passes them by and the sun begins to set. They reminisce, occasionally holding hands and embracing, but not so often as to make us disbelieve in the realism of their marriage. And then Celine asks Jesse a question, a question that will almost directly affect what happens next: “If there’s one thing you could change about me, what would it be?”.
I said that Jesse’s and Celine’s traits are amplified because in many ways, there is a lot more at stake. In Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the couple — unmarried — was racing against the clock, unsure whether they would ever see each other again once they’d parted ways. They were discovering their love and had yet to spend more than a full day in each other’s presence. There was a lot at stake there, yes, but now, they have the sanctity of marriage and the future of their entire family to contend with, and when a crack as small as a father missing his son emerges, everything could collapse. They are visibly irritated by each other — which we can all understand — even though they seem more comfortable in each other’s company than ever before. They have spent the last nine years together, and it shows. They are more sensitive to words and body language, and when they quarrel, they do so so convincingly that we are certain they’ve quarreled many times. They have converted their shared memories and experiences into weapons to use against each other at the right time, to the right effect. They know how to make the other tick, and then explode. Sometimes even the smallest word, or glance, or gesture, could ignite a fuse, a fuse that’s been waiting to go off. They have become a real married couple, a couple that seems to know how to annoy better than how to pacify. But this isn’t to say that the Jesse and Celine we have come to love have disappeared inside squabbling spouses. They are still there, just a little harder to spot. Their relationship, as with Before Sunset, has taken on an additional layer. The nine years between movies have built upon the foundations of the first, and have made our lovebirds tired, weary, grumpy, but no less enchanting, effortless, and wonderful.
Best Moment | When Jesse and Celine start walking from the villa to the hotel. I was so happy to finally see them alone together, doing what they do best.
Worst Moment | Nope.