The first time we saw Jesse and Celine, the ardent duo played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s 1995 romantic talkfest Before Sunrise, the two were meeting on a train and spending one long night wandering around Vienna — exactly the sort of random encounter that can feel like starry-eyed destiny when you’re in your mid-20s. In 2004, Linklater reunited the two characters in the equally lovely Before Sunset, in which the bedazzled possibilities of youth began to bump up against the sobering realities of experience. If, like me, you adored the first two movies, Jesse and Celine will now seem like old friends to you, and it’s likely that you’ll go into Before Midnight, the third chapter in their saga, expecting another poetically touching conversational love song. Yet Before Midnight confounds expectations in powerful and even haunting ways. It’s not just darker than the previous two films. It’s bigger, deeper, and more searching. It follows the characters through a tale of embattled love that extends far beyond them.
The movie opens with Jesse at an airport, saying goodbye to his teenage son from a failed marriage. He and Celine then drive through the Greek countryside. We see them talking and arguing in an unbroken shot that lasts for close to 15 minutes. We learn that they are now a couple living in Paris with their twin daughters, and that they still have their back-and-forth rapport, only it’s grown testy in its intimacy. Jesse is a successful author of fiction, which he draws all too directly from his own life, and Celine is an environmental advocate who’s considering accepting an establishment job. Should she take the plunge? Or should the two move to the U.S. so that Jesse can be closer to his son? Though it’s clear that Jesse and Celine still love each other, their every issue and disagreement has become an entangled power struggle.
Linklater is a master of mixed moods. Before Midnight is happy, sad, bitter, tragic, and redemptive, but it is never predictable. There are moments when it evokes the wistful bohemian rapture of the first two movies, especially when the couple are sitting around at lunch with the Europeans they’ve been staying with on vacation, trading quips and philosophies. I can’t remember a sequence in another American film that so ebulliently harks back to the glory of ’70s art-house cinema. But it’s Before Midnight’s shattering second half that truly defines it, as the two characters wind up in a hotel room for what’s supposed to be a romantic getaway, and all their pent-up resentments start to bubble to the surface. Hawke and Delpy are both brilliant: They make every moment feel like it’s really happening. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, of course, in films like Scenes From a Marriage, but Linklater stages the escalating relationship war with a casual, flowing virtuosity, and he taps into Jesse and Celine’s competitive tensions in a way that reflects the divisive spirit of our era. This deeply bittersweet movie suggests that our long-term relationships sustain themselves over time by dying in order to be reborn. Before Midnight is enchanting entertainment that’s also the most honest and moving film about love in years. A