It’s no secret at this point that I’m a huge fan of Linklater’s “Before” series. I’ve written essays on the first two brilliant films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I’ve even declared my affinity for Julie Delpy in my essay on her wonderfully screwball 2 Days in New York. So perhaps I’m already coming into this newest addition to the Before series with rose-colored glasses on. At this point I’m not really sure I’d ever have a negative reaction to any of these films. Why? I simply like these people, Celine and Jesse far too much to not enjoy hanging out with them and seeing what they’re up to every 9-10 years. With this third film, the full force and weight of accumulated fictional stories of these two characters, coupled with our growing cinematic memories of them (and our own simultaneous ways in which we relate to their experiences) are beginning to take on a life of their own. Although it is the 3rd film in the series, it’s actually beginning to feel less like a series and more like one long film. It’s hard to imagine now any of the films by themselves, as each of them comment upon, build upon, and re imagine elements of each on an ongoing basis. To say which one is better is almost sacrilege to me….they’re all really pieces of one story.
Spoilers ahead….Before Midnight continues the saga and twisting/turning relationship of Celine and Jesse, two young people we met back in 1995 in Before Sunrise, as they spent a night together falling in love, before parting. They of course found each other again 9 years later in Before Sunset, elaborating on their life stories and how they diverged and joined together again. Now in Before Midnight we find them in Greece on holiday at the age of about 41. They’ve been a couple together for 9 years (haven’t married) and have twin girls. Jesse is still a writer and Celine continues her political involvement and activism. We follow them for an afternoon, evening, and night in which they chat about current parenting challenges, career challenges and relationship challenges. They engage in a robust dinner discussion at the villa where they are staying with other guests. We follow them on a long walk through Greek ruins and a nearby town on their way to a hotel stay that has been gifted to them as a break from their kids by another couple, and finally we witness an epic argument in the denouement at the hotel room as they discuss regrets about the past, dissatisfaction of the current state, apprehension on the part of Celine regarding Jesse’s wish to be involved in his son’s life (from a previous marriage), how to reconcile these wishes with Celine’s desire to take her dream job and ultimately questions of whether Celine and Jesse still in fact love each other.
Continuing the sharp and crackling dialogue from the previous two films, it’s clear that Linklater, Delpy and Hawke spend a good deal of time fleshing out the script. According to some articles that I’ve read, they take current experiences in their life and put them into the script and into their characters until things come together in a way that they’re all comfortable with. It’s clear that Celine and Jesse are who we thought they were. If we saw Celine in prior films as an independent feminist with high aspirations who can be sexually headstrong, but has a self-consciousness that makes her paranoid at times, it’s comforting to know that’s who she still is. If we saw Jesse as a hopeless romantic, who idealized love, who had a perpetual boyishness about him and an almost too-honest approach, it’s who he still is now. This continuity of characterization both through mannerisms and through their speech is what ties all of these films and moments together. The script is dense with information as usual. In brief,seemingly off-handed moments, we get glimpses and pieces of information that help us as the audience piece the entire previous 9 years together. The instances are almost too numerous to count: moments that explain their reuniting, Jesse’s divorce, Celine’s pregnancy, their living in New York and then Paris etc. etc. but all of this is handled so deftly that it avoids obviousness. This film, even more than the others, is woven with a biting and sarcastic wit throughout. Even in distressing moments, like the final argument, there is a startling and darkly comic streak running through, as often the jokes are at the other’s expense this time, whereas in the other two films, their jokes often avoided getting personal as they were still trying to impress each other. Here, they are in a full fledged relationship and they know each other well. So instead of just getting to know one another, the script allows now for deeper reflection on aging, parenting, death, career, the concept of love, marriage and lasting relationships, the concept of the self, the divide between men and women. When one considers the amount of information told through words here, the depth of characterization expressed through the words and also the pessimistic comedic strain and the damaging relational blows struck, it’s hard not to stand up and applaud the writing. It’s probably going to be my favorite screenplay of the year. Even more than in the previous films, the passing of the years and seasons is of high importance, with Celine and Jesse even commenting on how they demark time in their own minds. In this way, the elegance with which the film broaches topics of love coinciding with mortality has taken on a bitter sweetness that reaches a sort of pinnacle.
I think my favorite thing of all about this film and actually the entire series itself, is the fact that I simply ENJOY spending time with Celine and Jesse. I really like them and could watch them do anything for any period of time together. This fits my definition of the hang-out movie. I simply love watching them interact and feel like I know them as an actual people. This type of pay-off does not come without significant investment. It’s clear that Linklater, Delpy and Hawke come at this incredibly serious about the whole endeavor. It never feels forced, maligned or insignificant. But they approach the concept of each new film with a high degree of dedication and respect for the characters, the films, and the audience who watches. They all seem fully invested in how these films turn out and are fully committed to keeping these films as honest as possible. It seems that Before Midnight is getting supreme amounts of acclaim, to the degree that they have not seen before with the previous two. Any praise they get, surely has become cumulative as their investment in this concept of Celine and Jesse as time passes, has been sustained so remarkably it’s time to recognize their efforts. If they never make another film, I will feel that these 3 films are complete together. But if they do make another one, I will be first in line to see it.