Friday, August 26, 2016

Before Midnight (2013)

USA / Greece, 109 minutes
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Kim Krizan
Photography: Christos Voudouris
Music: Graham Reynolds
Editor: Sandra Adair
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

The third installment of the Before series, which has increasingly become a collaboration by director and cowriter Richard Linklater and its two stars, Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine, is probably the weakest. Thirds in sequels usually do poorly as movies, but that's not exactly the problem, partly because this is not a typical series. Before Midnight certainly has some of the strongest scenes of any of them. But the ending is hard to believe, flipping an unlikely switch out of the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory it has wandered at deepest levels and into sparkly upbeat, in order, one suspects, to help guarantee another installment (providing everyone makes it another nine years). It's a bit of a fairy tale, in other words, and not in a good way or one that really works with the title. Jesse and Celine are more like pumpkins until midnight, at which point they become a prince and a beautiful love relationship with glass slipper, etc. Maybe—it's also ambiguous, as all the endings are.

I should say I've never liked Before Sunrise that much, which possibly leaves me with just the second, Before Sunset. I had to check it out again this week just to be sure it's as good as I remember. It is. The strength of the later movies is that they look like real relationships. Before Sunset has a good deal of hope and an ingenious way to make it believable, with a relationship renewed before our eyes. In Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine are married, with twin girls, and settled after nine years into a comfortable life—conventional bohemian bourgeois, more or less, on vacation in the summer in Greece. Dig the scenery.

So married, twin girls, settled into a comfortable life, and with basically still the same sexual chemistry and natural ease and comfort with one another. That mostly registers—they are like any two people who just enjoy being together and talking, and they are basically likable too, which helps a lot. As they carry on an animated conversation on the drive back from the airport where they have taken Jesse's son Hank, who was staying with them for the summer, more details of their lives start to come out. Jesse's ex-wife now hates them both and is willing to use Hank as an emotional weapon against him. Her custody gamesmanship is a constant source of tension.

Jesse and Celine are staying with friends of friends at a kind of informal writers' retreat in Greece and have been there for six weeks, but will be leaving soon. A couple who is also staying there has bought them a night at a luxury hotel as a gift. There are many nice scenes early as dinner is prepared and eaten. It's one of those dinners with friends, a group of 8 or 10, that is delightful, a pleasure, with good spirits and strange conversational twists and surges. There are many awkward moments in the dinner scene—this group is friendly but don't know each other well. They are still sharing and finding out about each other, but it's easygoing, as warm and enjoyable as the Greek sunshine itself.

Then on to the center of the movie, which is the night at the hotel. Jesse and Celine are not really into it. Their minds are on packing and leaving soon. Putting Hank on the plane back to his mother has reminded them both of their situation with her. Celine suspects that Jesse is going to want to move the family to Chicago to be close to Hank and she already knows she doesn't want to do that. Jesse actually hasn't brought it up, but later that does seem to be his intent, which makes it a pretty good example of how attuned they are to one another.

Alas, couples of any longer duration than a few years know the dangers of travel. It can become an opportunity to fight, to fight at length and leisurely the fights they have been fighting since they started fighting. The fighting between Jesse and Celine is like that, and exactly right. They quickly go to the oldest wounds (Celine stood him up in 1994, his ex-wife is an endless part of their marriage, etc.) and they say cruel things to one another. It's the fighting of a settled relationship, and it has all the hallmarks of an all-nighter too, though again the movie insists on cutting it off around midnight.

It's true that feels merciful, and perhaps even shows the health of their relationship. But the fight that goes on for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes is familiar, painful, and hard to watch, because it feels so true. And while there is indeed a 50% chance they will rally and "make it" as a relationship (stay together to the death), there is probably less chance for it to survive with the kind of happiness simply about being together that we saw in Before Sunset and the earlier parts of this one. There is also a 50% chance they won't make it at all, that they call it a day, figure out something about the kids, and move on with their lives. This coin is not going to land on its edge. One virtue of all three movies in the series is that they end strategically to keep a lot of options open. There could well be a fourth Before movie in 2022 with these principals. As always, I'm just not sure I'm looking forward to it.


  1. Fascinating. I often come across reviews like this, where the writer and I both clearly saw the same movie, but had widely differing responses. I come bringing a different kind of baggage than you, because I love all of the movies, even including their scene in Waking Life. It's been awhile, but I don't remember thinking the ending was "sparkly". We both agree that the fight scene is the best thing in the movie, and that it is unbearable. It's just that I find the scene raises this one above all the others. Thanks, I always look forward to the times when you write about something I feel strongly about.

  2. "and leisurely the fights they have been fighting since they started fighting"-- like trotting out all the home movies one more time, only in this case we're going to go over all our grievances and smoldering resentments. Great line, the leisurely and fight, fight, fight. I still maintain Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a horror film, and one of the most harrowing I know.