Alongside “biopsy,” “trilogy” might be my least favorite word. Don't get me wrong, the three Lord Of The Rings movies were an impressive cinematic achievement, the Bourne triptych was consistently topnotch and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours is near perfect in execution. But, as a silver screen conceit, most trilogies test my patience and inevitably disappoint along the way.
Not so for the Before movies. Since 1995, when director Richard Linklater first began his periodic collaboration with actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the ongoing romance of has only deepened in character and insight.
Each film, spaced nine years apart, reveals the ever-developing relationship between two fiercely intelligent (and extremely loquacious) lovers who may, or may not, be destined to spend their lives together.
If Before Sunrise was about two 20-somethings falling in love, and Before Sunset (2004) was about 30-somethings reigniting the love that might have been, the newly released Before Midnight is about the hard work of sustaining that love.
Just as honest, intimate, and talky as its predecessors, this latest chapter centers around four extended conversations during the couple's last day of vacation in Greece. The film opens with Jesse putting his tween-age son on a plane home to his ex, then quickly helps us piece together what happened after he missed his flight home in Before Sunset. With twin daughters sleeping in the back seat, it's clear that we are well past the potential for love and deep into a committed relationship.
Linklater drops us into an extended single-take conversation between Jesse and Celine as they drive back to their villa. Now entering their 40s, the two are older, more tired and even a little bitter. She worries about her weight, feels professionally frustrated and has little patience for his grinning, laid-back evasions. He feels guilty about his failings as a father, has a wandering eye and complains that he can't do anything right by her. Welcome to the real-life joys of “happily ever after.”
Gentle teasing and easy laughs give way to something unsettling as the comments they trade have real barbs, revealing long-simmering resentments. At first it's tempting to recoil from Celine's quick leaps toward criticism, but over time it becomes clear she's got Jesse's passive-aggressive number and isn't letting him off the hook.
His boyish glibness is just as dysfunctional as her over-emphatic assumptions, and we begin to wonder if the romance we rooted for in the first two films was more wish fulfillment than reality.
Throughout his career, Hawke has been an inconsistent actor ¾ but here he shines, balancing Jesse's thoughtful dreamer against his character's need to mature. Delpy is all nervy charm and sharp elbows, a woman who bristles at the fact her ethereal beauty is slowly (yet gracefully) succumbing to the pull and sag of middle age.
The love and chemistry between them is still abundant, but there's no room for denial with these too-smart-for-their-own-good partners. It's this friction that keeps us hanging onto their every word. The movie missteps only briefly as Hawke chats about his writing career with locals, but this sets the stage for a wonderfully orchestrated luncheon with friends and neighbors.
Linklater pulls the audience up to the table and lets us eavesdrop on their conversation about the differences between men and women, which feels both authentic and spontaneous.
The film's final 40 minutes are among the most emotionally engrossing moments I've experienced in a long time. A casual argument bottoms out into a potentially relationship-ending fight and you can't help but feel the pit in your stomach harden. Despite their flaws, Jesse and Celine are a couple we care about and, for those who have followed the trilogy, become invested in. We want to see their relationship succeed.
Before Midnight understands that when love falters it isn't with a bang but a long protracted sigh. It’s a perceptive and humbling view of romance that debunks all notions of fairy tale endings. The boy might get the girl. The princess may find her prince. But can their love endure after the ball is over and the fireworks fade? To Linklater's credit, his film leaves the answer to that question up to us.
Of all the ’90s indie directors who have made good (Quentin Tarrantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith), only Linklater seems dedicated to tackling what it means to grow up and become an adult.
Before Midnight opens on Friday, June 14 and is rated R with a running time of 109 minutes.