Before Midnight review: eavesdropping on romance

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Before Midnight green light Julie Delpy Ethan Hawke

Marvelous. It’s impossible to shake the feeling that we are merely eavesdropping on reality. Witty, wise, and—most important of all—truly romantic in ways that movies usually aren’t.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the previous films; love Delpy and Hawke, separately and together

I’m “biast” (con): nothing at all

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

When film fans talk about “movie magic,” they’re usually referring to stupendous VFX that utterly convince you that you’re on an alien planet, or zooming through hyperspace, or right in the middle of a kung-fu battle with ninja robots — something fantastical and impossible, something you’d never actually be able to do ever in your life.

An even more profound kind of movie magic is at work in Before Midnight, the marvelous third installment in Richard Linklater’s series about GenX couple Jesse and Celine. The magic here is exactly the opposite of the imaginary kind and yet, ironically, it’s exactly like visiting Pandora or the Matrix in that you are completely suckered into believing this is real. Even knowing how tightly scripted and workshopped and rehearsed and prepared this — to a greater degree than most narrative films, it seems, with Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy all contributing to the script — it’s impossible to shake the feeling that we are merely eavesdropping on reality. Even knowing that Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are “only” actors and that they are not partnered with each other offscreen, it’s impossible not to suspect that we are watching two creative friends, under a bare pretense of fiction, performing off-the-cuff improvisational shooting-the-shit about life and love and kids and family and the different ways that men and women see the world.

I could more easily believe that Linklater (Bernie, Me and Orson Welles) has developed a way to peer into a parallel universe and follow around Hawke and Delpy’s doppelgangers with a camera than that this is so very carefully and precisely constructed. There’s simply nothing artificial about it at all.

Its consummate lack of artifice shows itself in the long, languid, uncut scenes that sneakily reveal a simple yet intense story through Celine (Delpy: 2 Days in New York) and Jesse’s (Hawke: The Purge, Total Recall) seemingly banal conversations about their life together, and what’s going on around them at this moment. (Because they have been together, for nine years now, since their prior meeting in Paris in Before Sunset; it’s almost 20 years since their first encounter on that train heading for Vienna in Before Sunrise.) The first chat is 14 minutes long and takes place in a car, as their twin little girls (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior) sleep in the backseat and they drive back from the airport in Messinia, Greece, to the writers’ retreat where they’ve spent the past six summer weeks. Jesse has just put his 14-year-old son, Henry (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick: Everybody’s Fine, The Omen), on a plane back home to his mother in the U.S., and he’s feeling insecure about his relationship with the kid. Might he and Celine move to Chicago to be closer to him? But Celine’s been offered an exciting new job in Paris, where they live and to where they will return the next day, so she’s not too keen on the idea.

But it does the film no justice to lay it out so flat like that. Though Henry’s departure appears to kickstart a crisis in Jesse and Celine’s relationship — or, in fact, simply peels the lid off one that has been brewing for a while — there’s no true resolution to it to be found here, and it remains questionable even whether the apparent crisis is a crisis at all, or merely just another volatile day in the relationship of two passionate, intelligent people. Because, as in Sunrise and Sunset, Midnight takes place all in a single day, and who’s to say what tomorrow might bring?

The uncertainty adds to the authenticity. So does the uncomplicated structure of the film: it’s all just people talking, wisely and wittily — and sometimes angrily and exasperatedly — and it flows from one conversation to another with the ease and spontaneity of real life. Now it’s Celine and Jesse alone in the car; now it’s dinner with the friends and artists they’ve spent the summer with; now it’s Celine and Jesse alone again, strolling through a charming fishing village. Sometimes there’s no conversation at all, as when Jesse and Celine watch the sun go down all but silently together. It’s astonishing to discover that these people are as comfortable to be with even when they’re not entertaining us with their banter.

Celine insists, at that dinner party, that her and Jesse’s story about meeting on that train — which he has immortalized in the semiautobiographical novel that made him famous — is “not really” romantic. But it is, in fact, the best kind of romantic, as is the ongoing story of their lives together: it doesn’t pretend that a relationship isn’t tough going over the long haul. This may be the best of the series because it dares to do what few other love stories do: stick with their lovers beyond the first blush of attraction and the thrill of the new to find the reward in sticking it out.

Or not. We’ll have to wait a decade, I suppose, to find out whether Jesse and Celine survived this day intact.

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Jim Wolverton
Jim Wolverton
Sun, Jul 14, 2013 11:40pm

Spot on review! I’ve just seen the film myself today and for me it is a toss up between the second film and this one as to which is my favorite. It’s nice to finally have an answer at to whether they wound up together or not. I guess, like you said, we’ll have to wait another nine years to find out if they stayed together or not.

Ruth Becker
Ruth Becker
Sat, Apr 19, 2014 12:16pm

Have you seen the first two films?

Matt Clayton
Matt Clayton
Tue, May 06, 2014 6:37pm

It’d be interesting if Linklater and co. did a fourth movie, maybe Celine and Jesse dealing with an empty nest and figuring out the post-children phase of their life.