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“Before Midnight” is a beautiful portrait of relationship exploration.

“Before Midnight” is a beautiful portrait of relationship exploration.

By: Paul Zecharia | www.stonesdetroit.com

If you are in the mood for romance at its most powerful, most thought-provoking, and its most uncomfortable, I would recommend something as strong as Before Midnight, the third installment of the now comfortably-named Before trilogy. Richard Linklater returns to both the director’s chair and the writer’s chair with his lead cast members Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy also sharing writing credit. Hawke and Delpy enchanted audiences eighteen years ago as Jesse and Celine, a young couple meeting for the first time on a train to Vienna in Before Sunrise. They kept it strong with Before Sunset, where they are reunited nine years later in Paris. Now they are back in a new light as a forty-something-year-old couple who have been together since after the events of Sunset. What made Sunrise and Sunset both incredibly strong were the charismatic and intimate performances of Hawke and Delpy and the carefully-written dialogue chosen for both characters as they heavily discuss the issues of love and life. Before Midnight is no different, expect the new twist is that it feels more bittersweet and hard to watch at times. With Sunrise exploring about the possibilities of ever meeting again and Sunset being a reunion and hopefully trying again, Midnight asks the question “Will they stay together forever?”

It’s been nine years and Jesse and Celine, now in their early forties, are together and married with twin daughters Ella and Nina (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior), presumably conceived right after that ambiguous ending of Before Sunset. They currently reside in Paris, where Jesse is a successful novelist, now having written two novels loosely fictionalized on the meetings between him, and Celine is an environmental activist, but is considering taking a job with the government. They are spending the summer at a writers’ retreat on the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece, another beautiful European location. The film opens with Jesse dropping off his teenage son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) at the airport so he can fly back to Chicago. The bored-looking Hank currently lives with his mother, Jesse’s unseen ex-wife. Even though Hank tells Jesse it’s been the best summer he’s ever spent with his father in Greece, you can tell he’s lying. As the rest of the day proceeds, Jesse and Celine spend time at a villa in Peloponnese with their host Patrick (Walter Lassally), married couple Stefanos and Ariadni (Panos Koronis and Athina Rachel Tsangari), and a young couple Achilleas and Anna (Yiannis Papadopoulos and Ariane Labed). Afterwards, Jesse and Celine are free to roam the countryside until they arrive at a hotel where reservations have been made for them to spend the night together.

Using the same quirks but somewhat straying away into a different formula from the previous two films, Before Midnight raises questions about marriage and long-term commitment while the characters themselves talk about marriage and long-term commitment. What makes this quite a refreshing film is that we don’t see the Hollywood version of what happens between a husband and wife. Nothing appears as contrived or forced with Jesse and Celine. There is a strong sense of maturity driven by a sheer sense of honesty through the uncomfortable banter that Jesse and Celine partake in during the second half of the film. This all starts when Jesse notices his strong disconnection between he and his son. He wishes Hank can see him more often, due to them living on different continents. Jesse evens considers moving back to the United States, much to the chagrin of Celine. Even though she is adamant about the government job due to it being everything she is against, Jesse advises that it would be a great opportunity for her to bring in money to the family. There is some bickering, but due to it being in the form of long and detailed discussion, it is more engaging and worth listening to.

What Linklater and crew have achieved here is bringing the story of Jesse and Celine to full circle. The flirtatious spontaneity of Before Sunrise connected with the hopeful do-overs of Before Sunset leads into the realness of commitment in Before Midnight. They challenge optimism with realism and idealism with pseudo-intellectualism, and wow, that sure is a lot of -isms. Regardless, Jesse and Celine both realize that they do have to face the inevitable during a joint mid-life crisis in which they both deal with their own insecurities. And to make it even more interesting, they even start talking about the possibility of breaking up in the first fifteen minutes of the film, right after Jesse drops off his son at the airport. It nearly foreshadows their fate. Linklater has instilled a good amount of suspense between the couple’s long conversations. It works so well because we have grown with this couple and you do not want to see them fight and not get along. But just like an aging couple, the audience would have to face reality with knowing that this is what couples go through. We need more couples in film to talk about their problems and deal with them in a mature and adult way. Hawke and Delpy are matched wonderfully in terms of emotionality. They have the right amount of intimacy and the right amount of stress, even to the point where Jesse calls Celine “The Mayor of Crazy Town”. We have a new peak for the couple.

Earlier in the film, one of the supporting characters raises an interesting question that I believe subtlety engulfed the conversations between the characters for rest of the film: “Do friendships and work bring the most happiness?” The reason why this strikes a cord with me is that the way I see the film is that it provokes thoughts about what makes real happiness. Jesse and Celine are not one hundred percent happy for the majority of the film. Without giving anything about what happens in the end, right before midnight, it will leave you with ambiguous thoughts that even our main characters feel. They try to help each other out with their own dilemmas, but they still have legitimate insecurities that are dealt with both reasoning and hurt. What the film is saying is that life itself feels ambiguous. The authenticity of the performances help incredibly well with what we are being told about the things these characters are saying. The dialogue is so well-constructed that you could almost swear that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are having real conversations.

Each Before film has been set in beautiful locations in Europe and Greece is no exception. These films about traveling and exploring life and love have resonated strongly with me to the point where I consider the “Vacation-With-Life-And-Love” genre as one of my favorites, right up there with the “Intertwining Stories” genre. The setting is gorgeous and it compliments Jesse and Celine’s experiences beautifully. The chemistry between these two actors is strongly impressive because they can still make us sympathize with these characters after eighteen years and three films. Even the side characters they spend time with at the villa as do well with being natural with the way they speak and creating a very natural environment. Event though this is supposed to be the final chapter in Jesse and Celine’s journey, it would not hurt to see another entry of these films nine years from now. I think what Linklater has created here is a real treat. He directs heated honest with passionate feelings so delicately. This is a real love story for the ages. Who knew that random conversations on train ride to Vienna could lead to some of the best writing in a romantic drama spanning out to three equally brilliant films?

Five out of five stars.

Before Midnight is rated R for sexual content/nudity and language.

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About Paul Zecharia

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Canadian, Michigander, Middle Eastern, pasta enthusiast, amateur photographer, souvenir penny collector, and party animal. Oh yeah, and lover of everything film.

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