Before Midnight (2013)

The third in a series of films about the same two characters, Before Midnight is a worthy successor to Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), a trilogy which will no doubt be remembered as among the highest achievements of director/writer Richard Linklater. However, at the same time, it’s definitely the most bitter of the three, with another nicely-judged ambiguous ending that leaves open far more than it resolves.

By this point in the series, it should be clear there’s little plot to recount exactly: Jesse and Céline, now in their 40s, are on holiday in Greece with their children (a son from Jesse’s earlier marriage, and two girls they’ve had with one another), staying at the home of respected writer Patrick (played by cinematographer Walter Lassally). Over the course of their final few days there, they talk to each other, touching on the feelings they’ve developed over the past nine years and what the future holds…

If the focus is still squarely on these two, it also widens the scope to include a small circle of friends they’ve made in Greece. As a couple, their story is now set beside several others, at different stages in their relationships: young lovers enjoying their first extended period of time together; an older married couple who have become comfortable with one another; and the elderly writer Patrick and his friend Natalia, both of whom have lost their partners. It’s also framed by the Greek countryside, its ruins and its long literary legacy. That historical propensity for tragedy is briefly touched upon, but it is only fully developed in the final third of the film, during an extended and brutal scene of argument in a hotel room.

Following meandering but sweet-natured conversations in a car and on foot around the sun-dappled Peloponnese, the first two-thirds of the film gently weaves in some of the threads that get unpicked towards the end, primarily Céline’s job offer from a government agency and Jesse’s concerns about his teenage son Hank growing up fatherless in Chicago. There are misunderstandings on both sides, but it’s fair to say that both characters have become more set in their character traits: Céline is obsessive and neurotic, while Jesse’s egotism continues to lead him into broad generalisations that he won’t step down from. By the final third, he’s engaged in some pretty epic ‘mansplaining’, from which Céline flinches in anger on several occasions.

And yet even if these still aren’t characters I’d probably connect with in real life, the extended time with them in this film (as in the past two) has meant we have a pretty good sense of them as a couple. The arguments will seem familiar to anyone in a relationship, so it’s anyone’s guess as to which direction these disagreements will lead their lives. Suffice it to say that there’s a clear sense of two people who’ve rehearsed similar arguments over the years and become set in their ways; in this respect, the acting is again wonderfully acute and sensitive to these two people. There is so much subtlety in every gesture and movement on the part of both Hawke and Delpy that at times the constant buzz of conversation even seems a bit superfluous.

Like the first two films in the series, this is a film that has provoked much discussion afterwards and will no doubt continue to live and grow with me. My gut reaction now may be influenced by some of the overt rancour on show, but I suspect that when I watch it again I’ll be able to pick up other nuances. For whatever I’ve indicated, there’s still plenty that’s joyful — about the filmmaking, about the writing, even about these characters — in amongst some of the more bitter flavours.

CREDITS
Director Richard Linklater; Writers Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy; Cinematographer Christos Voudouris Χρήστος Βουδούρης; Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Sunday 23 June 2013.

Before Sunset (2004)


FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Linklater | Writers Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Kim Krizan | Cinematographer Lee Daniel | Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke | Length 77 minutes | Seen at Ritzy, Brixton, London, 2 August 2004, at Curzon Soho, London, 29 August 2004 (and at home on DVD, Tuesday 18 June 2013) || My Rating 5 stars masterpiece


© Warner Independent Pictures

There’s a lot to like and admire in Before Sunrise (1995), but in retrospect it comes across as merely a prelude to this second film in the series, which returns to the same characters nine years later. Both Jesse and Céline have moved on in life, and meeting again in Paris, it feels like so much more is at stake for them. This has the effect of sharpening the feelings we are left with at the film’s close, which again like the first is very much ambiguous.

The film itself comments on this ambiguity, by having Jesse address the question at an author’s talk that starts the film (he has written a novel about the events of the first film, and is on a European book tour). In fact, at several stages the characters show an awareness of these very fictional structures within which they exist. However, this never comes across as unduly precious or pretentious, because the film’s focus remains sharply on this specific time and place, and on their conversation.

Stylistically, this is emphasised by constructing the film to take place in ‘real-time’. There’s a brief prologue showing empty locations anticipating the couple’s conversation (just as the first film ended with those empty locations where they had been, presumably a nod to Antonioni’s L’eclisse). However, from meeting at the bookshop by the Seine, via meandering walks around the streets and parks of Paris, followed by a boat ride and a car ride, there are no (obvious) ellipses. Most of the shots are Steadicam tracking shots following the two, so there’s an even clearer sense of geography in place — it feels as if you could go to Paris and reconstruct their walk yourself.

Best of all are the characters themselves, Continue reading “Before Sunset (2004)”

Before Sunrise (1995)


FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Linklater | Writers Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan | Cinematographer Lee Daniel | Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke | Length 97 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), June 1997 (and more recently on Sunday 16 June 2013) || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Columbia Pictures

With Before Midnight, the third in the trilogy, coming out in cinemas next week, I wanted to re-visit the story so far. This first film is from 1995 and introduces the series’ protagonists Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy). It turns out that it’s set on 16 June (1994), making my timing in re-watching it rather auspicious. While fashions may have changed in 19 years, this story of two earnest young people in their early 20s finding love while on holiday is still immensely charming.

That date of course is not arbitrary: it is set on ‘Bloomsday’, which is to say the date on which James Joyce set his novel Ulysses, another story taking place in a single city over the course of a single day. It’s a nice little tip of the hat, though looking for further parallels would probably be stretching things, as Before Sunrise is primarily a romantic film about two people getting to know one another. It’s that journey which forms the entirety of the film — the way they connect with one another via conversation — starting on the train where they meet and then wandering around Vienna, from where Jesse is imminently flying out back home to the States.

What’s charming about the film is that it doesn’t try to be anything more melodramatic or forced, it just wants to follow the natural rhythms of their conversation in the course of their wandering. Through what they say, the two reveal themselves to each other and to us: Jesse is embittered by a recent failed relationship, while Céline is impassioned about social justice and the state of the world. Some of their discussion brings to mind a certain kind of cynicism and ennui familiar from the 1990s, while a lot of it is just the natural earnestness of 20-somethings who still have their lives ahead of them, and want to change the world, or at least make their mark.

Continue reading “Before Sunrise (1995)”