I felt butterflies going into “Before Midnight.” “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” are two of my all-time favorite films, you see, and I didn’t want them to blow it now. For me those pictures are magical and somehow personal, maybe because I’m the same age as Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). Richard Linklater, the director, co-writes the pictures with Hawke and Delpy in what has become an unplanned series, and I am happy to report that with the supremely moving “Before Midnight,” they never make a false step. While there is some sadness, there is much more of the joy of life here. Or rather, this is a movie that understands that the two are twined.
Those first two films are about moments when you have to make a choice that could change your entire life. You’re in your mid-20s. Do you ask the beautiful young woman you’ve just met to get off the train with you in Vienna? If you’re her, do you get off? The young man does have a charming line about how you could think of it as an experiment in time travel. (Pretend it’s years later, he says. You’re married, but the marriage doesn’t have the same spark. You start to wonder about the guys with whom you didn’t take up along the way. Well, I’m one of those guys. Here’s your chance to go back and see).
Now it’s nine years later. Do you miss your flight and stay in Paris with your one true love? Staying means upending your life and the lives of others, but you know she’s the one, you know that much in your bones, have in fact known it since that night (even though you hadn’t seen her since).
In “Before Midnight” what Jesse and Celine face is not so much choices as the consequences of choices. They’ve been together for nine years now. They’ve got two young daughters. Once again, they go for a walk and talk. Or, as Jesse puts it, “How long has it been since we walked around bullshitting?” He’s still her disheveled dreamer. There’s still sex banter, and they still come upon bits of magic: I love the little ancient chapel.
Yet this film explores new ground. The image, the illusion of the other has become a real person. They struggle in their relationship to shake off their own mythology. Jesse, as excited by ideas as ever, has another novel under his belt, “That Time,” a companion piece to “This Time,” his mythologized version of “the night.”
"Before Midnight” is serene in its unspooling of the ribbon of time. Linklater's direction can feel like a lucid dream. But then, in a very natural, almost casual way, the “Before” movies have always been about time. “Before Sunrise” was about an enchanted evening where time seemed to be suspended. “Before Sunset” unfolded in “real time” and Jesse spoke about his idea to write an entire novel that took place in the space of one pop song, in the moment when a man discovers that “time is a lie”: it’s all happening, all at once.
We open on Jesse putting his pubescent son on a plane back to the boy's mom, Jesse’s ex-wife, after a summer together. Jesse yearns for a connection; that the boy seems to confide more in Celine confuses him. It also eats at him that his son lives in Chicago while they live in Paris. He returns to the car where Celine waits with the girls. As they talk and drive in an extended take, we get all this and more, and we enjoy the interplay between these two smart actors. We also get that Celine, who works as an environmental campaigner, is feeling dissatisfied, is considering a new job offer.
Jesse and Celine are on a sun-kissed Greek island for the summer, at a kind of idyllic writer’s colony. There is soccer during the day and evenings of food and wine. The children pick tomatoes from the vineyard, and the women happily prepare wonderful meals from fresh peppers. Meanwhile the writers, in this case the men, kick ideas around in the open air as the Mediterranean sparkles beyond. This is pretty near a perfect representation of my idea of the “good life.” But then the male ego would think so, wouldn't it?
I adore the happy, convivial alfresco dinner scene. It is the proverbial “feast of reason and flow of soul.” They talk about many things, especially sex. Around the table is a couple from every stage of life. (It’s all happening, all at once.) There is a nubile couple in their 20s (Ariane Labed and Yiannis Papadopoulos). Jesse and Celine represent middle age (and how funny it sounds to say that). So does another couple played by Athina Rachel Tsangari and Panos Koronis: playful, affectionate, they have a cheerfully contentious relationship.
Finally, there is an older man and woman (Walter Lassally and Xenia Kalogeropoulou), companions, still resonating with the days, still radiant, still happy, though each has lost his or her spouse. The woman mostly listens. When she does speak, she tells a story about her faltering efforts to hold on to the memory of the man she loved. Her story is so honest, so full of joy and sadness, that the table is momentarily silent in the face of its beauty. We’re just passing through, she concludes.
Linklater frames her between the backs of Jesse and Celine's heads. "We’re just characters in that old lady’s dream,” as Celine said in “Before Sunset.” (I've always felt that line was itself a playful reference to Linklater’s “Waking Life,” with its animated Jesse and Celine.)
The film culminates in an extended setpiece, a fight scene in the hotel room that is emotionally extraordinary: excruciating, breathtaking and also deeply, laughter-on-the-edge-of-tears funny. People are talking about Delpy leaving her (quite pretty) middle-aged breasts exposed, as sex turns to fighting. They should be talking about how much truth Hawke, Delpy and Linklater get on the screen, how much recognizable human experience.
We’re watching two people fight, yes, but these are not just any two people. We think of Jesse and Celine as icons of some kind of romantic dream. This scene is going to feel very personal for a lot of people, because (a) we watched them find each other, and (b) we see so much of ourselves in it, as men and women.
Celine storms out and Jesse discovers her at a table by the water, still furious. I have a time machine, he says in his roll of the dice to get her back: I’m that guy from the train. Do you remember me? And then she says the words that get to the heart of what it’s all about: I remember someone who made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
I’m that guy, Jesse insists. I’ve been traveling through time, and I have a letter from your future self. He reads it to her, and it's a beautiful letter, I thought, not that it mollifies her immediately: that would be too pat. However, when Celine finally returns to joking around--the jokes that contain so much truth, and some pain, but also acceptance and forgiveness--my eyes were hot with happy tears. This time machine, she asks him: would it work better if we were both naked?
“Before Midnight” is something perhaps more modest than a romantic dream. After all, Jesse and Celine are mature adults now. Yet it’s somehow all the more resilient and resonant for it. The melancholy is deeper, but so is the joy. At one point they sit and watch a sunset. “Still here,” she says. “Still here.” And finally, “Gone.” We’re just passing through. The day will close, but at the end of this film, Jesse and Celine make the choice that they will see it out together.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
--June 6, 2013