I was very happy when news emerged that not only was a third Before… film on the cards, but it had been completed in secret. That said, I subsequently tried to avoid reading much, if anything about the film as even knowing the set-up seemed like a plot spoiler. So, if anyone else out there feels the same, consider this a mild spoiler warning, this review (and all reviews of this film) will inevitably mention the situation the characters are now in, and, of course, will discuss the outcomes of the previous films, but if you haven’t seen them yet, go and do so right now, your life will be improved.
We last saw Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as thirty-somethings, reuniting nine years after their original meeting, reconnecting as they took a walk around Paris.
Richard Linklater’s unlikely yet sublime 2004 sequel ended on a tantalising cliffhanger – Jesse in Celine’s Paris apartment having to decide whether to leave and catch his flight back to the US or not. Immediately it could have seemed like a frustrating ending but upon reflection proved to be a perfectly fitting one. Just as 1995’s Before Sunrise ended without us knowing whether they would meet again in 6 months’ time as they planned to or not.
Jesse and Celine’s reunion in Paris was handled with restraint and subtlety, avoiding any slow-motion, long camera zooms or power ballads as their eyes met, and our reintroduction to them now, another nine years later, is given similarly respectful treatment.
We meet Jesse as he is saying goodbye to his son in a Greek airport, his son lives in the US with his mother who is now Jesse’s ex-wife. As Jesse leaves the airport, the camera smoothly follows him as he returns to his car, revealing Celine standing by it, talking on the phone in French, and as he walks around it, we see two young, blonde twin girls sleeping in the back seat.
There you have it, no exposition necessary, in one long shot Linklater has brought us up to date on Jesse and Celine. He must have stayed in Paris, they became a couple and are now parents together.
What made Before Sunrise so perfect as a romantic film is that it directly countered most rom-coms Hollywood produces. Its plot was minimal, two people meet on a train, decide to walk around a city together. That’s about it. Yet they always felt one hundred per cent real, there was no ‘meet-cute’, no convoluted reason for a falling out, no rush to the airport, just two people walking and talking, as they got to know, and fall for, each other over the course of a night. Nine years on, Before Sunset recreated the dynamic, and even took realism a step further by playing out in real time.
Before Midnight again, opts for an approach characterised by very long takes of conversations, split into distinct sections, and taking place over the course of a day. First Jesse and Celine talk in the car as they drive back to the villa where they are staying, then they take part in a dinner party with several other guests, before taking a walk to a hotel together. Through their conversations, we learn much about their history together.
It’s no surprise that Hawke and Delpy are again credited as screenwriters here (along with Linklater), as they both seem to totally inhabit their characters. I’m unsure as to whether much or any of the film was improvised but it wouldn’t come as a surprise. Throughout the numerous lengthy takes they always seem like a real couple having a real conversation, never two actors reciting lines. Their words might descend to sexual matters a little too frequently, but cover a variety of big life issues – family, careers, etc., without ever feeling contrived. They may have progressed and matured, but underneath, they are still recognisably the same two characters we first met 18 years ago.
Once Jesse and Celine get some alone time they begin to deconstruct their relationship, taking the film in a darker turn than either of the previous films. Just as Before Sunrise skewed the traditional fantasy image of love at first site, showing us how these characters slowly fall for each other, Before Midnight does the same for the notion of ‘happily ever after’. Long lasting relationships are complicated, and need work.
Richard Linklater has given us something totally unique with this saga, a realistic study of a relationship seen only through one day per decade. Before Midnight is not quite as perfect as its predecessors, but is a wholly suitable addition to the series. Let’s just hope this isn’t the final conclusion, and we can meet Jesse and Celine again in another nine years.