Before Midnight is the third instalment of Richard Linklater’s on-going series charting the life and romantic entwining of a French woman named Céline (Julie Delpy) and an American man named Jesse (Ethan Hawke). To recap briefly – spoilers ahead – the couple met in their early 20s on a Vienna-bound train and spent a night together in 1995’s Before Sunrise, while 2004’s Before Sunset saw Jesse – a successful writer who used his relationship with Céline as the basis for his first two books – married to another woman and father of a young son, the child being his sole reason for persevering with a loveless marriage.
Before Midnight picks up Jesse and Céline’s story nine years on from their reunion in Before Sunset, and like the earlier films the story covers a short timespan (around 12 hours, roughly). They are now in their early 40s, in a relationship, and holidaying on the Greek Peloponnese peninsula. They are the parents of twin girls, and the beginning of the film sees Jesse saying goodbye at the local airport to his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who has been staying with them during the summer. Jesse is still a successful writer and Céline’s career is at a crossroads; she is contemplating taking a job with the French government, but Jesse feels she shouldn’t accept it.
Céline, Jesse and the girls are staying with a writer named Patrick (Walter Lassally), and the medium-sized group of Patrick’s friends and family present makes for a convivial lunchtime atmosphere. Generally things appear to be going well, despite Jesse’s desire to see more of his son, but the group decides to treat Céline and Jesse to a night in a hotel so they can enjoy some time alone. A sudden, vicious argument, however, casts some doubts over their future together.
Despite having watched all three of Linklater’s ‘Before’ movies to date, I wouldn’t count myself as a fan, but a mixture of admiration and curiosity keeps me returning to his long-running story each time a new instalment appears. One of my favourite television documentaries is Michael Apted’s ongoing Up Series, which has followed the lives of several people from the age of seven in 1964 to the present day, with new documentary films about them appearing at seven-year intervals. The attraction with each documentary is finding out about the major and minor events – good and bad – that have happened to the subjects in the years in-between, and the same applies to Linklater’s movies. After the kinda / sorta cliffhanger at the end of Before Sunset there’s a certain rush of excitement to be had from the way the director quickly reveals the current situation at the beginning of Before Midnight, particularly because it means he has dispensed with the ‘chance meetings’ angle that were so popular in the first two movies.
Despite an extremely varied career to date, the director has – on occasion – displayed a clear interest in documenting the passage of time: as well as this series of films 1993’s much-loved Dazed And Confused is as warm an exercise in nostalgia as you are likely to see, and the forthcoming Boyhood – a drama about a family that also stars Hawke – has been made over a period of twelve years.
Such a long-term outlook – slow cinema if you like – is rare, but then Linklater is an unusual director. He has made dramas, comedies, documentaries, animated films and romances, and few directors can match his ability to convince across such a wide variety of genres. He has also stayed true to his roots by remaining in Austin, Texas, eschewing the typical director’s life in the hubbub of LA or New York, yet he has made a very ‘European’ series that – in terms of locations, at least – shows up the lack of imagination in Woody Allen’s late-career Grand Tour. (So far, anyway; I imagine a fourth film will be made in due time. Perhaps the action (or rather the conversations) will finally shift to the USA.) The longer Linklater is around, and the more I see of his work, the more I admire him.
There’s certainly much to admire about Before Midnight, too. His series is incredibly popular, which ought to surprise given that the latest episode, for example, is made up of four long conversations and a few shorter ones; cinemagoers continue to confound those Hollywood marketing gurus and researchers who maintain that this kind of thing doesn’t sell seats, and the series has a legion of devotees. A modest budget of $3 million has seen a return of $20 million already, which is quite a high figure for what is essentially an arthouse film. Perhaps its popularity is a result of its simplicity: this really is a straightforward, timeless romantic tale, albeit one teased out gradually over a long period.
The two main performances by Hawke and Delpy are impressive here; both actors produce their finest work as the two characters to date. Their mammoth conversations often involve long takes, and memorising lines must have been a struggle, given the amount of dialogue they have to get through and the strength of the Greek summer sun (although wisely most of the scenes taking place outdoors make good use of the shade). Both had freedom to improvise, a feature of the series that has ensured a reasonably convincing naturalistic dialogue, and here the speech of both characters is peppered again with occasional ‘ums’, ‘ers’ and pauses (although the lunchtime scene with Patrick and his entourage here contains a little too much turn-taking for my liking, and the bonhomie around the table seems a little forced). (I’ve read conflicting reports about Linklater and improvisation. Some sources state that all his screenplays are so diligently worked on they ‘seem’ improvised, as opposed to ‘are’ improvised.)
The movie’s set piece – for want of a better phrase – is the argument between Céline and Jesse in the hotel room. Neither character is willing to back down or let the other have the last word and long-standing gripes are aired, the characters slugging it out by trading verbose insults more damaging than a Tyson gut punch. Céline delivers the knockout blow in this gripping encounter, essentially setting up further ‘will they, won’t they?’ questions that will presumably be answered when the couple hit 50. The ends of these movies really are well-crafted, subtly tailing off and thankfully avoiding the clumsy cliffhanger nonsense associated with soap operas. I like their open-endedness a lot, as it’s refreshing to see such a decision made for artistic reasons and not merely so that the audience is left aware that a money-spinning sequel has already been sanctioned by the powers that be.
There’s always a ‘but’ for me, though, with regard to this series. My principal problem with Before Sunset, Before Sunrise and now Before Midnight does not stop me from admiring any of the three films or the acting or the director or the screenplay or anything else that impresses, but it does stop me from loving the movies. It’s the characters: when I have spent more than 15 minutes in the company of Céline and Jesse – whether we’re talking the two Gen-Xers swanning about Europe by train or the current incarnations bathed in Greek sunlight two decades later – I begin to get fidgety. After half an hour I’m ready to explode. After 45 minutes I usually do explode, although I wouldn’t dare repeat anything I say on this blog. I simply do not like either of them. They get on my nerves and their intimate, smarmy, clever-clever repartee repeatedly boils my piss til it can be boiled no more. I can’t stand their personalities and always end up infuriated by their smugness. I hate how self-satisfied they are, the arrogant, pretentious smart-arses. In real life I wouldn’t want anything to do with either of them, and I have no doubt that the feeling would be mutual. (In that respect there was a certain amount of schadenfreude to be had when their row spiralled out of control.) In fact I must be the only person watching this series that is hoping Jesse and Céline break-up and live miserably ever after.
My dislike for Jesse and Céline is so strong I find that each film ends up irritating me despite all that is good about it. I have the choice of avoiding them, of course, but it’s like having a sore tooth that you can’t stop touching; I have to watch each instalment now as I’ve invested five hours or so over the course of 20 years myself. I’m trapped in an unhappy relationship, destined to spend the rest of my life dropping into the rest of their lives every seven years, even though I know the furrowed brow on my forehead will become even deeper as a result. It’s awful, I tell you, awful!
Rants aside, Linklater, original co-writer Kim Krizan and the principal actors (who have now received two co-writing credits themselves) have excelled in their long-term development of these two characters, because their foibles and their wittiness and their personality disorders and their warmth and so on are all up there on screen to like or dislike as you see fit. They are extremely well-drawn, and my dislike of them isn’t intended to be an insult; it’s just how it is. It would be a sign of failure if I was ambivalent about them after three whole films, and that’s certainly not the case. This is another well-made addition to the series, and though I do not love it there is much to admire. Unfortunately I feel even more trapped by the relationship now, despite the fact that I hate both Jesse and Céline more than I did before watching. Will I still be with them in seven years’ time, when Before 3.31pm or Before Teatime is released? Time will tell…
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Starring: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Running Time: 108 minutes