The Before trilogy is maybe the most unlikely trilogy of them all — if you can even call it one. The word “trilogy” conjures an epic vibe, as if Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy should be running around in cape and cowl fighting crime in order to justify a three-part, decades-spanning story. Before Sunrise certainly wasn’t conceived as anything more than a one-off, and what’s truly amazing about these films is that each ends on a perfect note of ambiguity, so perfect that we almost don’t want to know what happens next.
But of course, ultimately we do want to know — or at least, we want to check in with them every nine years to see whether or not Jesse and Celine are where we expect them to be.
Once we’ve had nearly a decade to decide for ourselves whether Jesse and Celine end up together (left unclear at the end of both previous movies), Richard Linklater answers with his own version. Before Sunset was, as far as I can tell, a perfect film, a bit of fantasy wish fulfillment at the same time as it was realistic enough to buy as something that might really happen to this couple. It gave Jesse and Celin’s romance a dash of practicality — they never did end up meeting in Vienna as promised — but also indulged us in the fact that they did meet again, improbably, older and with more baggage than when they were twenty-somethings with their lives ahead of them. There was more urgency this second time around. The real-time conversation, a walk-and-talk through the lovely streets of Paris, was somehow even more romantic than their more passionate first meeting. It’s easy enough to have chemistry with a hot, foreign stranger when you’re young — but how likely is it to have an entirely different chemistry with that person nearly a decade later?
Before Midnight puts even more distance between these two and their optimistic former selves, of course — but it’s no romantic lark. If Before Sunrise was about how easy it is to fall for a stranger when we’re young, and Before Sunset was about how true romance is less likely but still possible a decade later, then Before Midnight is about what happens when those possibilities are gone and you’re essentially stuck with each other, for better or worse. It’s no coincidence that the title conjures up a much darker picture in our mind’s eye. Along with the difficulties of lasting love, regret and mortality are frequently invoked, the same way we’re more likely to think of such things in our forties than in our twenties or thirties. Before Midnight is, in some ways, a drastic departure from its predecessors, but not an unwelcome one. It’s merely growing old, along with its protagonists.
Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine saying goodbye to Hank, Jesse’s son from his previous marriage. This creates a rift between the couple (who never married, based on her wishes) — Jesse would like to move back to Chicago to be near his son, while Celine doesn’t relish the idea of giving up her European life for Chicago (and close proximity to Jesse’s difficult ex-wife). Before this conflict comes to a head, though, we get to bask in Jesse and Celine’s rat-a-tat banter, which both feels entirely natural and also much wittier and more thoughtful than most everyday conversations between lovers.
Before Midnight is even more plotless than its prequels, so that it’s maybe a full 45 minutes or more before the real story even kicks in. But Linklater knows his audience by now, and he knows that we’re down for lengthy chats about love, life, death, and everything in between — we’ll basically follow these two anywhere. Jesse and Celine have a pair of adorable twin girls and have been summering in Greece, thanks to Jesse’s popularity as an author (whose first two books are thinly-veiled retellings of his romance with Celine). It all feels as idyllic as possible, and aside from an early argument about that relocation, we could almost feel a total lack of conflict if not for our sense that there’s something brewing under the surface.
That there is. When Jesse and Celine are finally alone, the gloves come off, and let’s just say that, like its predecessors, this film again calls into question whether or not the two will end up together. As usual, the screenplay Linklater has crafted with Delpy and Hawke is pitch perfect at every turn, giving us little insights into these characters — some of which are so specific they can only be taken from the actors’ personal lives. Jesse and Celine are as engaging when they’re fighting as when they’re loving each other, and some will find their traded barbs painfully familiar. (I sure did.) A key moment in the film finds Jesse and Celine in the dark with a murky body of water just a few feet away, and yes, there is that threat that they’ll tumble in (metaphorically speaking) and never find each other again. Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine at their darkest hour, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll come out of it as a couple. Like real life, this relationship is complicated and there’s maybe no one solution that can make everyone happy. (Including the audience.)
Before Midnight isn’t the warm souffle that Before Sunrise and especially Before Sunset were. The Greek setting is lovely, the conversation sparkling — but there’s more under the surface. The centerpiece of the film is one long dinner table conversation between various lovers, young and old and middle-aged. It’s absolutely perfect in the way it ebbs and flows, and reminiscent of Certified Copy in the way it reflects similar loves throughout different generations. It’s as if the topic of conversation is Life Itself, and in that lengthy scene it feels like the group touches on just about every aspect of the human condition. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
As with Before Sunset, I find absolutely nothing to complain about in Before Midnight. I still can’t compare them, because they’re very different movies with very different goals, despite starring the same characters. It would’ve been a safe bet for Linklater, Hawke and Delpy to deliver another cutesy rom-com, something that would go down easy. Instead, they opted for a rather bitter pill — bittersweet, at least — that’s truer to life. I will say that it than the film offers.