Before Midnight opens with a familiar two-person, walking-and-talking scene. But, pointedly, the first couple we see here isn't Celine and Jesse, the duo played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke whom filmmaker Richard Linklater has now depicted in three films.
Instead, it's Jesse and Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), Jesse's middle-school-aged son from a different relationship, whom Jesse is reluctantly putting on a plane back home to the boy's mother after a summer together.
For fans of this series, it's a disorienting opener. For most of the 185 minutes across 1995's Before Sunrise and 2004's Before Sunset, Celine and Jesse were on the screen together, their cinematic world near inviolate: Rarely did others impinge on their time together.
But Linklater and his writer/actor collaborators Delpy and Hawke let the audience know from the very beginning of this third installment that things have changed. This time, there are intruders in their midst. Life has grown more complicated.
Before Sunrise introduced Celine and Jesse at the outset of their 20s — two college students on holiday who meet on a train to Vienna and end up spending a night together exploring the city, making a pact before parting the next morning to meet at the train station again in six months.
Before Sunset caught up with them nine years later, as they were embarking on their 30s, the prior appointment never kept. There, Jesse has written a novel inspired by the first encounter and is in Paris on a press tour. Celine emerges after his final event to confront him, and, with only an hour or so before Jesse has to catch a flight out of the city, they go for a walk to reconnect.
Before Midnight tracks the fruits of that reconnection: Another nine years later, entering their 40s — "these middle years," as one character calls them, now looming — Celine and Jesse are finally a real couple, living in Paris after a spell in New York, with twin daughters and too-occasional visits from Hank, who resides with Jesse's ex back in Chicago.
In Before Sunset, the audience experienced the reconnection under roughly the same time constraints as the characters, getting swept up in the rush of people who hadn't seen each other in a decade with now too little time to catch up. This time, however, there's a decade of joint off-screen history between Celine and Jesse, and it's the audience that's catching up. As a result, this third film is more about familiarity than discovery, as Celine and Jesse traverse the Greek countryside during one mundane but momentous day and night at the tail end of a vacation.
If both earlier films were radiant in their way, this time — as the title suggests — Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke are working in darker hues. The film is still rich with talk — natural and searching rather than the movies' usual polished and snappy — but the tone has veered into "scenes from a marriage" territory. Courageously, Before Midnight declines to merely repeat past pleasures.
After saying goodbye to Hank, Celine and Jesse drive, with their daughters, back to the home of an acquaintance with whom they've been staying, enjoy a meal with their hosts, and then alight together to a seaside hotel friends have arranged for them as a gift (along with the necessary babysitting accompaniment). This day-and-night structure is divided into eight conversational set pieces, four of them lengthy Delpy/Hawke tours de force. But the meal scene, which presents four couples — one younger than Celine and Jesse, one older, one their contemporaries — who represent different relationship stages, provides crucial testimony in a film that's essentially about the difficulties and limits of romantic love as you age.
Before Midnight works differently from its predecessors. It doesn't have the freshness or romance of Before Sunrise. And it lacks the near-real-time immediacy of the wondrous Before Sunset. This thornier film may ultimately be deeper and more affecting. But it's also difficult to imagine seeing Before Midnight without having seen the prior films — or wanting to — because these small films amount to one of the grand endeavors in modern moviemaking.
Celine and Jesse explain their personal backstory to their Greek companions — and, by extension, to the film audience. But these films work in concert. Each enriches the others, across the now 18-year, three-film continuum. Before Midnight had me with an early, melancholy tracking shot out of the airport that introduces Celine. It's a moment both beautiful and devastating and wouldn't mean much without an investment in the earlier films.
And so it is with the chemistry between Celine and Jesse, Delpy and Hawke. He's still the fabulist of the pair, prone to performance, at once more cynical and more romantic. She's more practically minded, more earnest and committed. Before Midnight shows these commingled personalities evolving, at times into agonizingly fraught territory.
But, as with its predecessors, this talky film's biggest depth charges come in silence. Before, it was in the listening booth of a Vienna record store or in a limousine in Paris, stealing glances. Here it's an outdoor cafe two-top on the Mediterranean, trembling at a portentous sunset or gazing into the abyss of the "one hell of a night we're about to have."
Opening Friday, June 14th
Ridgeway Four, Malco Cordova