I approached Richard Linklater's Before Midnight with the kind of trepidation with which you might approach a Belle and Sebastian record you haven't listened to in a couple of decades. I was 25 when I met Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Sunrise. That film, released in 1995, was a fantasy of youth, a fleeting romance in Vienna amid the hordes of backpacking college kids. Jesse and Celine met, talked, walked, talked and finally coupled in that film, before promising to reunite in the same place six months hence.
In the second film, 2004's Before Sunset, audiences found out that meeting never occurred. Instead, Jesse and Celine meet in Paris as 30-somethings, with Jesse now a published author speaking at a Left Bank bookshop. In Before Sunset, which remains my favorite of the three, the now-far-more technically accomplished Linklater executed a dizzying, nerve-wracking feat: The story unfolded in real time, as Jesse and Celine got reacquainted during the 80 minutes Jesse had to spare before leaving for the airport to catch his flight home. The film ended on an exquisite cliffhanger.
Now, nine years later, we know that Jesse missed his flight home in order to stay with Celine, and consequently sank his marriage. The new film, Before Midnight, carries the whiff of prosaic disillusionment. This time, we're on the coast of southern Greece, and when the film opens Jesse is saying goodbye to Hank, his preadolescent son, at a provincial airport. Hank, who'd just spent the summer at this idyllic hideaway with Jesse, Celine and their two daughters, is the unseen victim of his father's choice at the end of the second film. The guilt Jesse feels as his son grows up is the precipitating crisis of Before Midnight. Jesse wants to return to America to be near his son during his high school years, while Celine does not.
Thus Before Midnight is concerned about middle age, and the constraints that adults face once they are responsible for the shelter and sustenance of others. Jesse and Celine in 1995 had nothing but time, nothing but options, nothing but passion for the lives they were about to live. In 2004, they were beginning to realize their ambitions, but they were still young, still aiming for a life without compromise. In Before Midnight, they are grown up and wised up. Seemingly, they're also successful, but success isn't quite what they thought it would be. Jesse has continued to publish novels—which are well-known enough to be translated into Greek—but he's also teaching to make ends meet. Celine is working for a green energy nonprofit but, frustrated by the slow pace of change, is considering taking a government job that will give her more influence. In the meantime, finances are tight, and they struggle to find time to rest. Reality bites, and all that.
When do we ever see this movie, this film that tells the truth about the not-so-happily-ever-after? Most romantic movies end with the couple's union, conveniently leaving out the years of toil, compromise and disappointment that may follow. But Linklater and his co-conspirators, who collaborated on this script as they did with the others, bravely wade into the unromantic part of a love affair. Celine and Jesse (or is it Delpy and Hawke?) have gone soft around the middle. Hawke's ratty clothes and unkempt face, once part of his rakish charm, now reeks of slovenliness. And Delpy—sans makeup, sans Botox—is the opposite of her contemporary Sandra Bullock, who seemingly won't go anywhere without her walk-in lettuce crisper.
If you've seen the others, you know what to expect: talk, talk and more talk. Jesse is the skeptical wiseacre, while Celine is the activist and feminist with a dirty streak. But Celine's feminism is less rhetorical now—she's feeling the competing pressures of her professional aspirations and what may be an unfair share of the childrearing duties.
The talk-talk-talk may be exasperating to those coming late to these films—including those who were barely born (shudder) when they began. But that's part of the deal with aging, too, isn't it? Jesse and Celine may seem like tedious old bores—unless, like me, you've known them for years. The film is structured around several long scenes, including a lunch that seems designed to evoke Plato's Symposium, as several couples—old and young—discuss their ideas of love, sex and commitment.
Then there's a long walk from dinner to a hotel, where the knives come out. Jesse and Celine have a painful, and perhaps pivotal, fight that culminates with one of them saying something truly ugly to the other. About Henry Miller. It's that kind of movie.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Journey to the end of night."