Nearly 2 decades ago stars Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy (who also share writing credits now) and director Richard Linklater set into motion something that was unprecedented. Where most cinematic romances are depicted over the course of a 2 hour film with a well established formula; they meet, fall in love, encounter hardships and eventually fall back in love, the “Before” films are an entirely differently and much more intimate look at love and the sacrifices we make in the name of it. Jesse (Hawke) and Celine’s (Delpy) story isn’t confined to a single film nor a single story, it is an all encompassing experience that spans the entire lives of the characters, the actors and ourselves which has produced one of the most unique and greatest love stories ever told.
It is near impossible to talk about the latest film in the series, “Before Midnight”, without discussing the lineage behind it. The first film, 1995’s “Before Sunrise” was a film that dealt with young love, the naive beliefs of two impressionable youths who believed in romanticism and the ideal of finding one’s true love. It took place over the course of a single evening, where we took a tour of Vienna with Jesse and Celine as they opened themselves up to one another, heart and soul. At the end we were left with a single question, did they ever meet 6 months later like they had planned? It was a romantic notion that was in keeping with the blind faith the two lovers had in each other and their love at the time, but the outcome was left to our own optimistic or pessimistic outlook.
Fast forward nearly 10 years later and we find Jesse in Paris, learn that he has married, has a son and is on a book signing tour. His book, about a man who met a woman on a train and instantly fell in love with her, was a huge hit and even caught the attention of Celine herself, the woman whom he had been writing and thinking about for the past decade, who herself has been slightly scarred by their evening together. They meet again for the first time in ten years and rekindle their mutual feelings towards one another almost immediately, but both have grown up, both have baggage and understand that they could never be together unless they were to sacrifice everything they have worked for.
Fast forward another 10 years and we find the two lovers finally together and married with 2 kids of their own and on vacation in Greece. But their marriage isn’t exactly what they had envisioned all those years ago. Jesse is now divorced, is barely sharing custody of his son who still lives in America and still writing books based on his encounters with Celine, the woman he fell in love with and sacrificed everything to be with. Celine on the other hand is trying desperately to balance being a mother and wife with the life of a strong independent career-minded woman seeking her dream job which is now just a phone call away.
Jesse and Celine’s story up to this point had been one of chance encounters, longing and great expectations. The first two films had this hopeless romantic quality to them, where we thought all Jesse and Celine had to do was take the plunge and throw caution to the wind and everything would turn out alright. But as these things tend to unfold in the real world, not everything has gone as planned. Unlike the more gooey romantic side of love that most Hollywood films like to recycle a dozen times each year, their story has been about making real choices and the consequences of those choices that we must all live with in our every day lives.
Part of the appeal to the “Before” films has always been its honest approach to love and relationships. Jesse and Celine are not characters with one solitary desire. They may have started out that way, but that was because of their youthful ambitions. As they have grown into adulthood they have matured into individuals with responsibilities, yet their undeniable attraction to one another still drives them together. However, just like the real world, satisfying their desire to be together has consequences and that is what “Before Midnight” explores, what happens when we act on our desires and the baggage that comes with it.
Each film has always been comprised of a single, but significant moment in their lives. We all have mundane moments in our lives where most of our days amount to nothing more than our usual routine; getting up in the morning, going to work, going home, going to bed and then repeating it all the next day. But we also have those days where something significant occurs which makes one day out of the hundreds stand out from all the rest. Those are the moments we experience with Jesse and Celine.
Long labeled as “walking and talking” films (which means our characters walk all over the place while continuously engaged in conversation covering a range of topics), “Before Midnight” follows the same structure as its predecessors with the majority of the film being taken up with Jesse and Celine walking from point A to point B while having these highly insightful and often comical conversations about themselves, their problems and at this point, their history together. While there are more moments in this film where other characters partake in the conversation along with them, one of those being an extremely enjoyable discussion between them and other couples of varying age groups, most of the film mirrors the style set by Linklater 2 decades ago.
But here is the hard question, is it too late to make a connection with Jesse and Celine unless you were there when it started? The thing that makes “Before Midnight” such a monumental achievement is the legacy it has crafted for itself. What has now become a sort of tradition, where Hawke, Delpy and Linklater get together every 10 or so years to explore where Jesse and Celine are in their lives is extremely dependent on your own history with these characters. If you were there from the start, you have likely grown and matured along with Jesse and Celine, experienced life as they have, when they have, and thus have a unique perspective when it comes to where they are in their lives now.
If you were to watch all three films back to back now for the very fist time (which is a daunting task considering the level of exhaustive dialog spoken in each film), you could still follow along with their story, but you wouldn’t have the investment needed to truly relate to the journey that got them to the place they find themselves. It isn’t impossible to forge that connection, but the effect is definitely diminished if you are just now being introduced to these characters for the first time.
It is the equivalent of meeting a couple years after they got together, as opposed to being their from the first day they met. Their history together defines them and the more you know of it and have experienced it with them, the more impact the stability of their relationship has on you. Of course, the natural chemistry between Hawke and Delpy certainly helps overcome these obstacles, as does their extreme amount of comfort on screen together.
This entire review has thus far been about what these films have offered as a whole, but as an individual film going experience, “Before Midnight” is without a doubt the most complex and interesting film out of the three. Be it the fact that as we get older the more tangled and messed up our lives get, or the fact that we just have more life experiences to pull from, Jesse and Celine as a married couple with kids in their early 40’s are infinitely more interesting than there courtship was (although, their history is equally as important).
Once again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, your investment level with these characters will ultimately dictate how invested you are in the evening you spend with them on their last night in Greece. The opening and middle parts of the film are generally pretty easy going with some fantastic dialog driven scenes exploring the everlasting enigma that is our attraction to the opposite sex. But it is the film’s final act, with Jesse and Celine’s verbal showdown, that will have most everyone engaging in their own conversations and delving deep into their own relationship(s) long after the film is over.
It would be doing an extreme disservice to what Hawke, Delpy and Linklater have crafted here to critique “Before Midnight” on its own, despite all of its inherent qualities as a stand alone experience. To do so would be the same as critiquing a book by a single chapter, it just doesn’t make sense. Why anyone would even want to attempt to see this film without watching the two previous films is just as perplexing and would almost certainly end in failure for anyone who attempts such a fools errand.
So, as for a recommendation, it is a little more complicated than just suggesting you go out and see it, which you most certainly should. “Before Midnight” is one of the most thoughtful, surprisingly comical and brutally honest looks at the hardships of keeping a long-term relationship from falling apart that has ever been committed to screen, as well as one of the most extraordinary love stories ever told.
If you have to yet get introduced to Jesse and Celine, make sure to catch the first two films beforehand (you can find them here), that way you are properly prepared for the emotional turmoil that awaits you with this remarkable tale of love and sacrifice that literally spans generations and transcends time. Here’s hoping that in another 10 years time we get an opportunity to check in on them once again.