A lot can change in 20 years. Just ask Jesse and Celine. In “Before Midnight”, we catch up with the stars of the film series that began with their first meeting, 1995’s “Before Sunrise”, and continued with 2004’s “Before Sunset.”
Fans worried about the ambiguous ending of “Sunset” can finally relax, nine years later. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are together, living in Paris, and parents of twin girls. Jesse has published two novels based on their relationship, and they seem to be settling comfortably into middle age as they spend a summer vacation in Greece. But comfortable middle age doesn’t make for interesting movies, and Jesse and Celine’s extended courtship has given way to the tribulations of a long-standing couple balancing love, parenthood and career.
The first two films’ memorable combination of unabashed romanticism and clear-eyed intelligence focused on the hesitant steps toward love. In “Before Midnight,” director and co-writer Richard Linklater expands and deepens Jesse and Celine’s story with another all-in-one-day portrait, but one that digs deeper into the negotiations and concessions of a shared life, of a love that has scuffed around for long enough to lose its unquestioned status.
Not surprisingly, “Before Midnight” centers on discussion that leads to disagreement that leads to argument, a process that every couple knows only too well. And like most arguments between couples, the subject isn’t really the subject. It’s really about deeper resentments and unhappiness swimming below the surface. Jesse and Celine both feel they have sacrificed for the good of the other and for their relationship, and both feel those sacrifices are underappreciated. The filmmakers explore this well-worked theme with insight, wit and compassion, and a flair for thoughtful dialogue that springs out of character.
Beneath the simple narrative, “Before Midnight” is expertly staged and paced by Linklater, structured around several audaciously long takes that create a realistic tension, and give room for the kind of patient, unblinking conversation that’s all but non-existent anymore. More notably, they never tip over into pretension, and they’re so beautifully played and written that they don’t feel long, they just flow with a natural, perceptive rhythm.
Hawke and Delpy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater, slip easily back into the characters of Jesse and Celine. They share the grace and perceptiveness of intimate familiarity, and they continue to embody the fascinating contradictions of two people smart enough to ask painful questions, but human enough to stumble in the search for answers. The two characters have a proud intelligence that sometimes gets in the way, and we nod in knowing sympathy as their conversations twist into argument with a logic that is as much emotional as intellectual. Their angry words have that extra edge that comes from gradually failed civility, and the two actors expertly jab and weave, chipping away at their romanticized selves, exposing weaknesses and fears in that specially acute way of two people who love each other.
Like the first two films, “Before Midnight” is mostly a two-hander, but In the center of the film is a dinner party, where the two share a meal with three other couples, one younger, one roughly the same age, and one much older. They talk, tell stories about each other, spar good-naturedly about contemporary romance and relationships. It’s smarter than any dinner I’ve ever sat through but still feels completely real and compelling, as Jesse and Celine see a reflection of the hope of their younger selves, and the resigned dignity of the older selves they may be one day. The scene ends with a short monologue by the older woman, who speaks with disarming clarity about memory and remembrance, and the worthy cost of emotional connection. It’s a moment that resonates through the rest of the film, and subtly, profoundly informs the later decisions that Jesse and Celine have to make.
The Blu-ray edition of “Before Midnight” is presented in 1080p High Definition, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The sun-drenched landscapes of Greece are beautifully captured, and the subtle lighting of faces in close-up and mid-range looks great on this disc. There are options for subtitles in English, English SDH, and French. There is a code included for a digital Ultraviolet copy of the film.
The audio track is 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The audio is crystal clear, intimate and well balanced against the music score.
- A commentary track with stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and director Richard Linklater. Sparse at first, but smart and enjoyable when they get going, particularly when talking about the challenge of filming long takes.
- “Revisiting Jesse and Celine”: A short but interesting featurette where Hawke, Delpy and Linklater talk about the reasons for coming back to these characters after nine years off.
- A live and lively Q&A session with Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater, moderated by critic Elvis Mitchell. Definitely worth a look for fans.
“Before Midnight” takes an astute, heartfelt look at the complex nature of love and commitment, and marks the most deeply satisfying chapter in a very compelling series.