Jesse and Celine, the lovers from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, have reunited again in Before Midnight, and each time we've caught up with them it's been a richer, more rewarding experience than the last. If this third installment in their lives is lacking the magic and romance of the first two, it makes up for it in mature, emotional, grown up interaction that lets us in on the familiar, painful proceedings of a long-term relationship that can't help but lack the spark of the new in their first meeting or the longing nostalgia in their second.
It's been nine years since Jesse missed that plane in Before Sunset, and in the intervening time since we see that he moved to Paris to be with Celine, and the two are now a committed couple with adorable 7-year old twin girls. The movie starts off with Jesse dropping his now teenage son off at the airport to return to his mom after spending a summer vacation with his dad in Greece. After this scene it's revealed what Jesse and Celine's daily lives are in an extended conversation as they drive back to their summer house, filmed in a long 15-minute take by director Richard Linklater. It's the first of three perfectly written extended dialogue scenes in the film- familiar, yet new at the same time, because Jesse and Celine are now older and comfortable with each other on a day to day basis, and even though Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy now wear these roles like a glove, they allow an air of weariness and irritation to inhabit their performances, and they are both so incredibly natural and lived in that it really does feel like we're dropping in old friends in the midst of their lives.
Delpy especially shows how Celine has become much more bitter in the course of their time together, still holding on to her old anxieties and fears about men despite Jesse's unconditional and pretty much undying devotion to her and their children. She gives an incredibly complex portrayal of a complicated woman filled with ever changing emotions and would undoubtedly deserve any year end accolades showered on her performance, should they come her way. The structure of this third installment is a bit different from the first two- instead of just Jesse and Celine, the existential conversations this time are expanded to include their friends whose house they're staying at, and over an extended dinner scene we get the perspective of love from three different couples at different stages of their lives, in the second expertly written and acted scene from the year's best original screenplay.
Linklater takes advantage of the to-die-for Greek setting as we see the old stone ruins in loving fashion, just as Vienna and Paris were highlighted in the last two films, but this is probably the most gorgeously scenic experience yet (although perhaps anyone could film the ancient ruins of Greece in such a light, it's certainly possible). And in the final incredible feat of writing and acting in the film, Jesse and Celine are pushed by their Greek surroundings into recapturing the romance of their earlier encounters, but life, as it does, interrupts and leads into a nasty and bitter fight between the two that lasts for a full half hour as all of their regrets and disappointments come spilling to the surface, along with the resentments their actions over the past nine years have created between them. It's fiercely acted and so real it feels uncomfortable as anyone with similar experiences regarding divorce, heartbreak, infidelity, money troubles and all the problems that come with a long term relationship will recognize the frustration and cringe as they hear it.
In a way Before Midnight is the truest and most hard hitting of the three films, and it deserves credit for taking Jesse and Celine's seemingly fairy tale romance to its natural conclusion, even if in retrospect it makes the first two films lose some of their luster- the ideal, romantic love it glamorized now looks trite, and all relationships seem doomed to failure, whether you stay together or not. If Jesse and Celine can't make it work, who can? But the movie leaves us with just a bit of hope for them, and as such, there's hope for us all, as long as they, and we, keep talking to each other.
* * * *