Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Julie Deply, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Cast: Julie Deply, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Ethan Hawke, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Panos Karonis, Ariane Labed, Walter Lassally, Yiannis Papadopoulos, Charlotte Prior, Jennifer Prior, and Athina Rachel Tsangari
Since I’ve started regularly working out of India, where so much of life is spent in a open crowds, a sense of bustle has relaxed me or at least helped me lose myself. People consider New York the center of the world. I recently went, but it was for some quiet, to get away from things. Memorial Day weekend was cold and damp, but the rain was never enough to force us indoors. A canopy of slate colored clouds encouraged long, rambling walks and some comfort food, exactly the type of trip we had in mind. Not so coincidentally, it was also the weekend that Before Midnight opened in just one theatre. If they do anything well, Richard Linklater’s Before movies set themselves up as a canvas that encourages projection.
Before Midnight starts with just Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). Details of the nine intervening years between the previous chapter and this latest are slowly teased, but you’re still left wondering. Eventually, Jesse leaves the airport and steps into the sun. We see Celine (Julie Deply) in a car, and we see the children they’ve had together asleep in the backseat, two beautiful blond twins presented as mute symbols of what this relationship we’ve so wondered about has yielded. It’s come at a cost, this life, as we’ve just said goodbye to Hank.
Gone, at least at first blush, are the high-minded conversations of the first two movies, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Jesse and Celine are no longer so interested in discussing what it means to live but rather how to go about the living. The planning of a day, the negotiations of a family existence is the meat of their digressions. They make each other laugh more quickly, but there’s a growing sense as we go on that the jokes are evasions, and the rural Greek horizon of Before Midnight slowly shrinks as we get closer to a real discussion.
We arrive at a jaw-dropping country home where Jesse, as a writer of some renown, has been invited to spend the summer with his family. The book about that first night in Before Sunrise got Jesse and Celine together. The one about their coming together in Before Sunset earned them an apartment in Paris. “The ‘this’ that brought us together and the ‘that’ that bought the house,” he says, “this ‘that’ got that, and that ‘that’ got this.” It’s told as a family joke, a bit of mythmaking that smoothes over the intervening years. As several generations discuss sex, love, and life in a heavy-handed nod to Plato’s The Symposium, we discover our two protagonists not just as they are to each other, which is all we’ve seen of them, but as they present themselves to a crowd.
Finally, Before Midnight takes us to a hotel room, where Jesse and Celine can talk alone, drapes covering the windows. It doesn’t take long before things are said that are quickly regretted. She hurts him. He hurts her. Was this streak of cruelty always there, or did it develop over time? While it would be easy to say that Celine is a bitch, one has to consider how Jesse ruined his ex-wife’s life. She’s painted as a demon, almost a rallying point that brings our protagonists together even as they fight, but, for years, Jesse pulled away and wrote about this one perfect person he could never have. Then he gets her, leaves his wife, and writes about the new relationship in a horrid public celebration.
“You don’t know me,” Celine snaps, riling against a confidence that threatens to diminish her own complexity. Jesse answers, “I know you better than anyone else in this world.” Because he’s right and because she knows him just as well, we’re treated to one of the rawest arguments ever to grace the screen. My take is that Celine has always been the seducer, but that doesn’t mean she’s the steadiest. Jesse has been trying to play the adult and comes across as something lesser. However, despite his immaturity, he’s actively made some difficult decisions to stay with Celine, to choose here and this over there and that.
Each movie in Linklater’s trilogy features a silent recap of the sights visited, stopping to stare at empty spaces as we would admire a postcard. In Before Midnight, this lingering and the chosen shots are like looking at the scene of a murder: wine glasses that have not been touched, a bed that has not been slept in, a cup of tea that has not been sipped, etc. Our parents understood that a life together sometimes demands the hardest work you’ll ever do. Oversaturated with primetime soap operas, Hollywood romantic comedies, and frothy pop ballads, our generation seems to have forgotten this. However, if you’re brave enough to follow Jesse and Celine through this latest chapter in their lives, you might just grow up with them.
I’ve experienced the discovery of Linklater’s Before movies with two women with whom I’ve intended to share my life. With one, I share a daughter. With the other, I share the memory of that weekend in New York. I recommended Before Midnight to the former, and, as I sat next to the latter at the AMC Lowes in Lincoln Square, I came to understand Jesse’s ultimate motivation, what drives him to step out of the hotel room in the end: he loves Celine, and that’s something you work at keeping.