For those who love film, there will always be seminal viewings that helped foster that love. And I do not mean watching classics on Blu-Ray or DVD, or even cassette tape, digesting the film long after its vibrant beginnings. I mean seeing a film in its theatrical run, feeling its importance, and being among the first to ascribe personal meaning to the work. During my own cinephile infancy, films like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004) helped build a foundation for my obsession. I remember being entranced with the quality of conversation held on screen, the way it ebbed and flowed naturally throughout, leaving room for little else. I also remember thinking that ‘people just don’t make films like this.’ And, indeed, that holds true still.
Before Sunset was a sequel to Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), a film I did not know even existed before I watched its successor. It is fitting, then, that news of Before Midnight would completely escape my notice until two weeks before its premiere at Sundance. I approached this screening with both excitement and trepidation, knowing that many directors have tried to recapture the essence and vitality of a past film to miserable results. I knew nothing about this latest installment going in, other than its title and previous incarnations. I wanted to know nothing, to remain as unbiased as possible. As the film began though, I knew my concerns were unfounded. The brilliance of Before Midnight cannot be attributed to nostalgia, though it benefits from the deepened history of its characters. Instead, what makes Before Midnight great is its readiness to take a much loved story of romance and drag it through nine years of parenthood and domestic partnership.
For those uninitiated with the series, each film details a distinct chapter within the saga of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). In Before Sunrise, Jesse meets Celine on a train and convinces her to get off with him and explore Vienna. The two then fall for each other over the course of a night, and part promising to return to Vienna in six months. In Before Sunset, the two meet nine years later, having missed their rendezvous. During this lost span of time, Jesse has written a popular book based on his one night stand with Celine, and finishes a worldwide press tour in Paris, where Celine lives. She finds him at his book reading, and they go off to reconnect, both aware that Jesse’s impending plane flight threatens to cut their reminiscence short. Slowly, they learn of each other’s lives and find they still have love between them. Sadly, Jesse is now married and a father, and so it seems fated not to be. However, as his flight draws close, Jesse unconsciously refuses to pull away. He listens to Celine sing in her apartment, he sits on her couch, and he simply waits. Celine says “Baby, you are going to miss that plane,” not so much as a warning but as an unequivocal fact. He replies “I know,” smiles, and the film fades to black.
I still feel Before Sunset‘s ending is close to perfect. We know Jesse will destroy his life in favor of the one he has pined for, and instead of seeing the consequences we only see the gesture, that love made it impossible for him to leave. It is a messy act made simple and beautiful, leading to an ending that refuses to compromise on its own ideal sense of romance. It is also an ending that Before Midnight eagerly destroys. Once again, the new entry enjoys a nine year gap, and Jesse and Celine are now parents to twins. They have never married but remain in love, though their love has suffered the travails of time. They live together in France, and Jesse only sees his son during the summers, while his now ex-wife holds full custody. During the early moments of the film, Jesse confesses the wishes he could see his son more, that he has missed too much of his life. Unbeknownst to him, these words stir something in Celine, who is poised to accept an important job in France. She fears she will acquiesce to Jesse’s unspoken will and return to the states, sacrificing her own life in the process. Meanwhile, Jesse would still not have custody of his son and could at best visit with him every other weekend.
Without much warning, Celine tells Jesse that this is how couples break up. If Jesse stays then he will grow to resent her for it, if she leaves with him for the states she will likely do the same. Almost playfully, she tells him that they have had “a good run,” but this must be the end. It seems a strange statement within the context of their lighthearted banter, and the matter is soon forgotten. However, about halfway through the film, this conflict unexpectedly rears its beastly head. Celine has a seemingly innocuous conversation with Jesse’s son on the phone, who tells her he got in safe from his flight. The call ends, Jesse grouses that he was not given a chance to speak with him, and this small disagreement inexplicably leads to a heated argument in which Celine refuses to return to the states and Jesse insists he never asked her to do so. Eventually, Jesse admits that he would like to have a conversation about it, because he feels a failure as a father, and he tries to calm the argument down. By now, though, it is too late and the argument mutates into one in which every unspoken issue between the two of them, accumulated during their nine years together, slowly comes to light.
To give the full extent of this conversation would rob the viewer of the experience of watching it unfold. I will say, however, that I have never seen a film come closer to the genuine tenor of an argument. And not just any argument, but one between two people who love each other and who have spent too much time together. An argument in which both responsible parties know each other’s weaknesses and do not know when to relent. The detail of Celine wanting to storm away, but then immediately returning simply to dig the knife in, specifically recalls arguments I have had in my life. Like Celine, I knew I should let things lie, but I was driven by some sick compulsion to see where it would end. It is a memory I find surprised to be shared on film with such authenticity, and with so little need for art to exploit it for some loftier intimation.
If Before Sunrise was unabashedly romantic throughout, then Before Sunset was tempered by reality only to succumb to its amorous whims by the end. If Before Sunset was cautiously optimistic for enduring love and happiness, then Before Midnight holds on to the last shred of that hope, clinging for life. Each film gives something different, but the relationship between the two characters remains beautifully rendered and convincing throughout. With this last film, an undeniably bitter sweet close allows you to believe in a love that might actually exist. It transcends its fictional space, and echoes relationships held or witnessed by the audience themselves. Still, without the first two films giving context and nuance, these characters may not have felt so fleshed out, so utterly realized. Thankfully, because of the care in its writing and an ingrained sense of history, the film’s world ages well. Admittedly, the romantic in me might prefer Before Sunset for its grounded idealism, or Before Sunrise for its unadulterated passion, but I somehow appreciate Before Midnight more for its stubborn grasp on the truth of things, and for the feeling that everything that has come before leads to this moment.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.