This follow-up to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset finds roaming lovers Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) now together and with children, assessing their relationship on the last day of an idyllic family holiday in Greece. As they reflect on the curious history of their romance, latent tensions come to light.
"Baby, you are going to miss that plane.” When we last saw Celine and Jesse — goo-goo-eyed and grooving to Nina Simone in her Parisian shoebox apartment — in 2004’s lovely Before Sunset, it seemed at once an end and a beginning. Were they on the verge of a lifelong romance salvaged from an unlikely second chance, or just the dirty weekend to end all others? We couldn’t know, but it seemed the right place to leave them all the same. The feelings left dangling by their chance night of Viennese passion nine years before in Before Sunrise had been addressed, if not resolved: it wasn’t quite closure, but when it comes to modern love, what is?
So the news that Richard Linklater and his stars/co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were planning a third date, another nine years on, inevitably stirred mixed emotions in fans. Sure, we’ve been dying to know if those two crazy kids made it in the end, but romantic cinema needs its little mysteries; one false, disillusioning move, and we could have the indie equivalent of The Godfather Part III on our hands.
If that’s been your concern, breathe easy — and maybe look away, since the questions answered and aroused by this delightful, insightful follow-up are best faced first-hand. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to Before Midnight is that, as early as its first exchange between the now fortysomething lovers, it feels like a sequel that was meant to be, not made on a whim. For all the first-kiss beauty of Before Sunrise, cinema is replete with great movies about falling in love; great movies that take on the less sexy pleasures (and considerable challenges) of staying in love are rarer birds. Here’s one.
Before you ask, yes, Jesse did miss that plane. So it’s a tease that this film opens with him in a tiny Greek airport, bidding an awkward farewell to his now-adolescent son as the boy returns to Jesse’s ex-wife in Chicago. Yes, ex-wife: that unseen obstacle from Before Sunset is now out of the picture, but where’s Celine? Fear not, she’s waiting outside in a hire car with their angelic twin daughters. Yes, Celine and Jesse evidently didn’t waste much time getting serious, and we’re joining them on the last day of a blissful family holiday.
As their familiar, affectionately argumentative banter starts up once more, we feel relief with a hint of malaise: if they’re happily living the dream, why are we here? No film can begin with a happy ending and stay there, after all. And sure enough, as the couple circle each other with line upon line of brilliant dialogue that feels no less authentic for being so beautifully wrought, it becomes clear that all is not well in paradise. Practical, professional and personal frustrations are pinching, and while Jesse remains the fecklessly romantic manchild he’s always been, Celine has matured (perhaps with reason) into a harder, more bitterly guarded soul. Delpy’s brisk, careworn performance is a marvel in itself, but taken with her work in the first films, it’s one of the most remarkable feats of slow-burn characterisation in all cinema.
As the film follows the day-in-a-life structure of its predecessors, passions and tensions escalate in a series of sometimes scaldingly intimate two-handed scenes. However, Linklater varies the formula by introducing outside characters into their world; a disorientating imposition at first, it makes the point that couples nearing 20 years of acquaintance cannot thrive on each other alone. By turns warm, mellow and excoriating, rather like the Mediterranean sun itself, Before Midnight is the most fitting extension — let’s not say conclusion — to this unique screen romance we could have asked for. Celine and Jesse forever. We hope.
A bit tarter than its predecessors, but not skimping on their woozy, chatty charm, this perfectly played, gently incisive film is a welcome new chapter in one of cinema’s most beguiling ongoing romances. See it with someone you’ve loved for some time.
Reviewed by Guy Lodge