Film Review: Before Midnight

Nearly two decades have passed since Jesse and Celine met on that train bound for Vienna. This third chapter hits new highs as Richard Linklater gets down and dirty about the challenges of long-term commitment.

The ongoing saga of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) makes for one of the most engaging love stories in contemporary cinema. We first met them in their 20s in Before Sunrise (1995), and picked them up again as they reunited in their 30s in Before Sunset (2004). In the eagerly anticipated festival hit Before Midnight, we find them in their early 40s, still talking, arguing, teasing, laughing, and now the parents of twin girls.

Yes, Jesse, an American, missed his plane back to New York in that cliffhanger final scene from Before Sunset some nine years ago, turning his back on a failed marriage to stay on with the French Celine in Paris. Richer and more layered than the previous two installments, Midnight focuses on a couple with history and simmering conflicts, a bit roughed up by life. In the film's brilliant second half, the pair go mano-a-mano as they explore with brutal honesty whether their commitment has the legs for the long haul. The unvoiced subtext, perhaps, is disappointment: “Is that all there is?” Sure to be catnip to art-house regulars (with crossover likely), Midnight holds a mirror—at times painfully—to the thorny issues faced by long-term couples in the middle of their lives.

The deft first scene in the Kalamata Airport in Greece circles the troubling consequences of Jesse's decision to remain in Paris. He's anxiously seeing off his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who's returning to his mother and life in the U.S. after spending the “best summer ever” with Jesse and his family. Geography weighs heavily on Jesse. During a marathon uncut take of a drive through the austerely beautiful Messinia, he frets about living so far from Hank and hints at wanting to move back to America from their home in Paris. On her side, the mercurial and workaholic Celine, an environmentalist, ponders whether to accept a more demanding job, ruling out any return to the States. The battle is drawn: paternal guilt in one corner, Celine's intransigence in the other.

Jesse, a successful novelist, has been attending a writers’ retreat in Greece and staying with Celine in the bucolic country villa of an older expat writer. During a group dinner, the conversation (which rambles a bit) keeps returning to the subject of love and transience. One of the guests, a widow, says of her late husband, “I'm starting to forget him. It's like losing him again,” adding, “We're just passing through.” All three Jesse/Celine films promote a sense of urgency as the couple at their center struggles to make their union a bulwark against the relentless flow of time—“before” some witching hour. Over dinner it also becomes clear that Celine, whose past pops up in Jesse's semi-autobiographical novels, is fed up with serving as alluring French muse to his career. When their Greek friends offer them a night to themselves at a seaside hotel, while they look after the twins, the stage is set for a perfect storm.

And the night in the hotel is a doozy. As in the earlier chapters, Linklater and his two actors collaborated on the writing. Every word is scripted, yet thanks to the masterful Delpy and Hawke, the hotel scenes sound ripped from the moment. The lovers go for the jugular, especially Celine. Delpy's eyes turn icy, become pinpoints of hatred, as she rattles off a litany of male sins, including passive aggression, machismo, emotional blackmail and, most damning, inadequacy as a lover.

Like in real life, the viewer is tempted to take sides. When Jesse calls Celine, with some justice, a crazy pain in the ass no one else would put up with, he has a point. Hawke, gruff-voiced and embattled, delivers one of the best turns you're likely to see on a screen this year as a man with a bad conscience who's somehow being asked to do penitence for centuries of male misbehavior. At the same time, he's more grounded than Celine—“If you want true love,” he says, “then this is it.” And more willing to stake it all on their future: “I'm giving you my whole life, I don't have anything larger to give.” You could draw a parallel between Before Midnight and Judd Apatow's cheesy and unfunny (except for one scene) This Is 40. Watching Richard Linklater's latest chapter in a unique cinematic love story, you'll likely agree, this is 40.