In a summer dominated by sequels, it is perhaps the final entry of the “lowest-grossing trilogy” of all time that ends up being the best of them all. “Before Midnight”, our third visit with Jesse and Celine, brings back the charm of predecessors “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” while raising the stakes and telling a funny, honest, and reaffirming story about love. In doing so, the filmmakers pull off a rare feat, a trilogy that got better with each film.
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy have figured out a wonderfully unique system for their “Before” series. Rather than capitalize on the critical acclaim of each film and go right into another story they chose to take nine-year gaps in between each installment. The first time it showed us how perfect Jesse and Celine are together because of how easily they reignited their initial spark and how after nine years it still was just as strong as it was before.
This new gap, however, does something different. After the cliffhanger ending of “Before Sunset” – will they stay together or won’t they — we learn that Jesse and Celine do stay together. Because of that, a history has been built over these last nine years. They have twin girls, Celine has become a loving step-mother to Jesse’s son from his old marriage, and all the other little details that go on with a couple over a nine year span have accumulated. The greatest thing that this does is to raise the stakes and add a whole new complexity to their relationship.
The ticking clock from the first two movies is removed. They don’t have until the next morning or until they have to leave to catch a plane to be together, now they have to make it work for as long as they can. As a result the romanticized version of this relationship is lessened and it becomes a much more honest and intimate portrayal of what a relationship is. As odd as it may sound, “Before Midnight” is actually a wonderful companion piece to last year’s “Amour” because of that.
The new elements have elevated “Before Midnight” to a deeper portrait of love. But it is the walking and talking between Jesse and Celine has made this series, and the filmmakers haven’t lost their touch. Hawke and Delpy are able to slip right back into these characters like putting on a second skin. It helps that they also had a hand in writing the last two editions, which has helped their characters’ growth both individually and as a couple feel natural.
No less comfortable is Richard Linklater, who knows to just get out of the way of these two characters and let the story tell itself. He does this with long takes of uninterrupted dialogue between Hawke and Delpy. The execution of these scenes is key to why “Before Midnight” is such a success; the dialogue is rich and interesting and brought to life so amazingly by Hawke and Delpy. The trio should at the very least be in contention for some screenplay consideration later in the year, if not Hawke and Delpy for acting as well.
There is a reason that fans get excited over a new “Before” film. It is hard to watch it and not just fall in love and become enthralled in these characters. You love their strengths, you love their faults; the audience at this point feels nearly as invested in the relationship as they are. Simply speaking for myself, but I would gladly pay to return every nine years to see where Jesse and Celine are in their lives.
“Before Midnight” is an anomaly: the conclusion of an indie trilogy (which in itself is unheard of) that succeeds in taking the best pieces of its predecessors while adding to the cannon so naturally and affectively. In short, it is a triumph for its three principles and their shared vision. In a weekend of fast cars and Zach Galifinakis’ beard, it is a trip to the southern Peloponnese that will prove to be the most rewarding.