Published Jan 24, 2013It's been nine years since Before Sunset, when Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) ran into each other in France during his book tour. After rekindling their passion for each other and inherent physical and mental connection, having a slightly less idealized approach to world values and ideology, they were left with a quandary. Having a wife and child back in the U.S, Jesse was trapped between obligation and opportunity, which helped give that film some of its emotional heft.
When Before Midnight starts, Jesse and Celine are married with twin daughters. Jesse is dropping off his son at an airport in Greece to return to America where he lives with his mother.
This action ultimately defines the central conflict of the third film in Richard Linklater's conversation and character based Before trilogy, leaving Jesse considering moving back to Chicago to be closer to his son, much to the chagrin of Celine, who has a new job opportunity in Paris, France where they live.
Initially, their conversations are about the ephemeral nature of life, comically acknowledging the weirdness of parenthood with Jesse stealing his daughter's half-eaten apple while she sleeps and lying to them about the reason for skipping a trip to some ruins. This extended opening conversation between the now-married couple sets a tone of comfort between the two, adding some levity to the joys and disappointments of a long-term marriage.
This protracted opening scene re-establishes the tone of the series perfectly, vacillating between playful superficial banter and heavier stabs at value shifts and priority changes for a couple that is now in their early 40s.
From here, Midnight steps back from the usual extended dialogue scenes between the couple to draw parallels between them, an older couple that openly disparages each other without emotional, or negative, reaction, and a younger couple in the throws of idealized physical passion. Celine and Jesse fall in the middle of this divide, frustrated by each other's imperfections and disappointed by the fact that physical attraction and excitement eventually gives way to tolerance and (ideally) friendship.
This existential woe and preoccupation with the ephemeral nature of life propels the final two acts of the film, where the couple rent a hotel room to escape from their kids and daily responsibilities to reconnect. What they find is that without the many quotidian distractions keeping them rushing around without pause, they are left arguing about disappointments and annoyances in each other and the unglamorous realities of parenthood.
Because Delpy and Hawke have an established chemistry, these single shot arguments and outbursts, often hinting at gender roles and expectations—Celine rolls her eyes when Jesse suggests she can't have a rational discussion—are extremely intense, realistic and powerfully true to life in a way that cinema is rarely able to capture. They even manage to capture the reality of marital distress by injecting seemingly incidental observations and personality tics—Jesse corrects Celine when she says that Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster, rather than an oven, which leads her to complain about his need to correct arbitrary facts—which comes off as mood-lightening comedy to the viewer.
Even though Midnight isn't quite as emotionally powerful as Sunset within the text of the film, the overall observation of marital life and love after the agreement to live "happily ever after" being nothing like the romanticized ideal is something that lingers long after Jesse and Celine are left to live out their life off camera.
There is something deeply painful and beautiful about the frank and uncompromising observations made within this adult love story that reminds us of the importance of forgiving those around us for not being entirely perfect. (Castle Rock)