BEFORE MIDNIGHT— 5 STARS
This summer, most of your movie talk will be (and already has been) surrounding the big name sequels that are dominating the box office. From Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Fast and Furious 6 currently playing and onward to Monsters University, Despicable Me 2, Grown Ups 2, The Wolverine, Red 2, 300: Rise of an Empire, The Smurfs 2, and Kick-Ass 2 that are all still on the way, this season is full of familiar faces. Last week, I documented the unlikely and redemptive path that the Fast and Furious franchise has spanned since its cult inception in 2001 to the box office powerhouse in 2013. On a far smaller scale, I’ve got a trajectory of movie sequels that can top that gas-guzzling journey for emotional connectivity, wild unlikeliness, and sheer quality of storytelling and heart. Say hello to Before Midnight and the 200th movie review on “Every Movie Has a Lesson.” Welcome back, Jesse and Celine. We’ve been waiting for you and it’s great to see you again.
For those of you who have never met Jesse and Celine (shame on you, by the way), let me tell you the story. In 1995, Texas director Richard Linklater, coming off his catchy, nostalgic, star-making, and endlessly quotable cult hit Dazed and Confused, took to Vienna, Austria to shoot a “one night only” film of two strangers who meet on a train named Before Sunrise. Ethan Hawke played Jesse, a struggling writer and grunge enthusiast on his last day of touring Europe. He strikes up a conversation with a lovely French girl named Celine, played by Julie Delpy. Sensing a connection, they agree to spend the day together, addressing everything from their direction in life to the sparks between them. They know they will likely never see each other again, but vow to make the most of the experience, even going so far to agreeing to find each other again in six months. As a single movie, Before Sunrise is remembered for its realistic dialogue and wealth of realistic self-discovery and self-fulfillment. Desire with the niche audience that embraced the desire for a sequel, it became a forgotten dream.
Those six months turned into nine years. In 2004, Linklater re-addressed the open-ended question of “will they or won’t they” when Jesse and Celine meet again in Paris for Before Sunset. Older and wiser, Jesse has grown to find writing success and is on his last day of a book tour featuring a novel loosely based on his experiences in Vienna. Much to his surprise, he spots Celine at a book event and their chemistry starts again. Playing out in real time, they spent the afternoon catching up on their lives and their regrets from the past years. With a loveless marriage and a son at home, Jesse has a choice to make in following his heart. Sure enough, Before Sunset wondrously improved on the first film with its love of dialogue and the power of conversation, while offering yet another open-ended conclusion. It too begged a sequel.
That brings us to 2013 and an improbable third film. With Before Midnight, we enter this romance one more time for one more day. Nine more years later, Jesse and Celine are now Parisians and parents to twin daughters. Jesse is still a successful writer, but Celine is struggling with her up-and-down career and is considering a new direction and new job. They have spent the summer together as a family on a gorgeous Greek Island at an author’s retreat. Today’s the day they drop off Jesse’s teenage son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick from The Omen) from his first marriage at the airport for plane back to Chicago.
After awkwardly saying goodbye to Hank and feeling like a bit of a failure as a parent, Jesse brings a little bit of that drama back to finish their holiday. Just as before with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, we, the audience, float in front of Jesse and Celine to watch their chemistry and connection again, this time as married people of commitment instead of the young flirts we met before. Through some impressive long and continuous scenes and takes spanning car rides, dinner conversations with friends, evening strolls, cafe drinks, and a kid-free hotel stay in town to cap their last night of vacation, a multitude of topics are hashed out and reflected upon by our soul mates. They include the trappings of social media, the drive to keep passion, creative expression, the challenges of parenting, the doubts of marriage, the reality of aging, and the tough decisions that have plagued them for the last nine years and more.
I must warn that, compared to the flirty nature of their budding romance from the first two films, Before Midnight goes to some ugly places. Let’s face it, married people fight and we get a harsh dose of that after a warm reunion to open the film. Jesse and Celine, even after nine years together of never-in-doubt commitment, still have a little bit of oil and water between them. Their maturity at this stage of their lives has hardened some of those rough edges where Jesse can still be aloof and arrogant while Celine can still be pessimistic and impulsive.
The reassuring vibe is that, for all the dysfunction that boils up (leading to another semi-open-ended conclusion), their absolute love for each other shines through, no matter how murky the waters get. This would not be possible in cinematic form without the pitch-perfect performances of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. In another dialogue-driven showcase to match the first two chapters, their chemistry together has grown and matured to match the grown and matured characters they play. The tangibility and rawness of their conversational rapport and performance is off the charts.
You completely feel like you are watching a real couple with real emotional ties to their words and not two performers following a script. Other actors would make these exchanges look forced and appear un-invested. From the highest moments of passion to the lowest moments of argument, Hawke and Delpy make digging down deep to connect look natural and effortless.
The two leads share screenwriting credit with Linklater, flexing their creative muscle and dedication to these roles. For you young kids out there that have never seen this film series and need a suitable comparison, look towards the range shown by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine to play a struggling couple a few years ago. With the advantage of this journey spread into the passage of time of three films, Before Midnight is even better.
Another hefty compliment goes to writer-director Richard Linklater. It’s a pleasure to see him revisit this creative place. His maturity as a filmmaker comes out in these movies as much as the maturity comes out of the lead couple. In 1995, his Dazed and Confused-powered brazen youthfulness was reflected in Before Sunrise‘s whimsical buzz between two flirts. In 2004’s Before Sunset, made between his two mainstream hits of School of Rock and Bad News Bears, the fleeting chances and turning points for long-term success that come with one’s thirties are very much on display. Here with Before Midnight, Linklater’s greater vision to show this couple’s realistic flaws matches the greater responsibility the characters now have as parents in their forties. The world they all occupy has gotten heavier with the years, just as our own would. One must wonder if these three artists have something up their sleeve for their fifties and beyond.
If you are fan of good, old-fashioned conversation and dialogue, you will find Before Midnight as fascinating and intelligent as you (hopefully) found its two predecessors. I’ve hung on their every word for three movies. Yes, it’s a chatty movie, but in a more realistic and engaging way that anything we get from chat-master Quentin Tarantino. Cool banter for the sake of coolness in a Tarantino movie is replaced by tangible connection and solid character development here, just as it has for three films now. As cool as Tarantino’s penchant is for playful banter, give me the frank and real words of Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy any time. They resonate longer than quotable lines. If we keep on visiting these two every nine years for the rest of their lives, we would be better served by it as cinema lovers. That’s a conversation I’m completely willing to get lost in.
LESSON #1: EVEN GOOD COUPLES FIGHT SOMETIMES— The notion of marital arguments and their meaning is different for every couple and every lens. Some see it as cleansing and helpful because it, hopefully, leads to cleared air and resolution, just in a bumpier than necessary way. Meanwhile, the more naive half will label fighting as a sign of impending relationship doom. I like to think that even good couples fight sometimes. Some issues need the challenge and some couples need to challenge themselves. The issues are worsened when bottled and non-discussed. Nevertheless, contrary to the goal in the heat of the moment, no one comes out a winner.
LESSON #2: THE VOLATILE NATURE OF TWO PEOPLE’S CHEMISTRY— To dive a little deeper from where I was going with Lesson #1, I think Before Midnight follows the trend from the first two movies of volatile chemistry. On paper, you’ve got a Texas wannabe intellectual writer who has tasted success that has gone a little to his head combined with a Frenchwoman who takes every ripple and wave life brings here and runs with them as a lover and a mother. When the chemistry is right between them, the combustion is hot, beneficial, and strong. When it doesn’t mix, the reaction can be dangerous and harmful. I bet many couples see a little of this love-hate chemistry in their own relationship.
LESSON #3: THE EVOLUTION OF SOUL MATES OVER TIME— With the two lessons on the dark material of Before Midnight out of the way, let’s stretch and finish to a bigger picture. For as much as the fighting has become too regular and for as much as the chemistry isn’t clicking like it used to, Jesse and Celine are still soul mates. I don’t think couples can elevate their relationship to that level without a few challenges to strengthen their relationship. Make no mistake, these two deserve each other and belong with each other, even if doubt and dissension rear their ugly heads from time to time.
LESSON #4: THE SUSTAINABILITY OF LOVE AND PASSION— Finally, how do a couple of soul mates make it to that level? They find a way to sustain the love and passion that brought them together. There’s no doubt that age and maturity will affect and steer that love and passion to different angles as the years go on. Lovers sometimes sacrifice a little bit of that passion for their individual careers. Parents forfeit a little bit more of that passion to caring for their children. After each element of life steals their piece of your passion and spirits, soul mates need to have enough left over for each other if they are really going to sustain love for the long-term. I like to think Jesse and Celine have enough make it to the senior years they speak of.
Before Midnight is currently playing exclusively at just four Chicago area theaters with hopes to expand further. Catch it ahead of the crowds!