We meet Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) nine years on in Greece. Almost two decades have passed since their first meeting on that train bound for Vienna. Before the clock strikes midnight, we will again become part of their story.
What happens to love when it’s subjected to the trials of real time and parenthood? This is the essential question in Before Midnight, the third and most profound instalment of the extraordinary, romantic, naturalistic film collaboration between director Richard Linklater and writer/actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.
This couple feels too real to be invented.
Audiences first encountered the fresh-faced and talkative twenty-somethings, American tourist Jesse (Hawke) and French student Celine (Delpy), when they met on a train back in Before Sunrise (1995). Spending just one night together wandering the streets of Vienna, the duo engaged in passionate philosophical conversations, flirting and fighting and falling in love, all with urgency of knowing they’d be parted forever the next morning. Nine years later, in Before Sunset (2004), they met again in Paris, spending an afternoon walking the city like tourists, having an increasingly serious conversation that revealed the regrets of their years apart.
In Before Midnight, we dip into their lives another nine years down the track. Jesse and Celine are in their early 40s, holidaying in Greece at an idyllic writer’s retreat, along with their eight-year-old twin daughters. When their friends treat them to a child-free night in a hotel, they have the chance to walk and talk again, this time along the cobbled streets and in the ancient ruins and churches of Messinia. There’s still an incredible energy and a lot of laughter between them – they riff off each other like an old jazz band. But there are deep conflicts too, and built-up resentments erupt as the night wears on.
The dialogue is fully scripted (and apparently exhaustingly rehearsed) but it’s inhabited so naturally by the performers that this couple feels too real to be invented. Fans of the previous films will delight in the recurring conversational threads and motifs (time machines, grandmothers and Jazz divas), but this story stands on its own very well.
Before Midnight is beautifully shot by a mostly Greek crew, though with sound and editing veterans brought over from the previous instalments. There’s a lot of visual romance in the outdoor scenes with the golden light of the afternoon, culminating in a meltingly wistful exchange as the couple watch the sun being sucked behind mountains as it sets – 'going, going, going"¦.gone," says Delpy softly, and she may as well be talking about the years they have left.
The nature of time has always been a preoccupation of these films, but it’s more concrete here. The 18 years since the series began are etched on the faces and bodies of the actors – Hawke is leaner and craggier than before; Delpy is softer and wearier – and they make constant references to their being middle-aged. The choices they’ve made, the children they’ve had – and especially, the son Jesse left in New York to be with Celine – are evidence that time and geography are real and life is short. But then again, life feels very long when you spend it bickering with the person who once enchanted you. The film’s genius is that it conveys these paradoxes in a way that’s convincing, funny and sincerely moving.