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.
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.