Review: Before Midnight (2013)


Cast: , ,
Director: Richard Linklater
Country: USA
Genre: Drama | Romance
Official Trailer: Here

Editor’s Notes: Before Midnight is open in limited release.

As any book of inspirational quotes will tell you, we all lead two lives: the one we have today and the one we look back on. Most of the time, these lives scarcely resemble one another. Time can transform any mundane moment into the stuff of blissful daydreams. Looking back, we cherry-pick the little ecstasies and ignore the awkward silences and the trips to the bathroom to escape them. We create a highlight reel of those sublime moments when everything just clicked. We turn the raw footage of everyday life into a breezy montage.

The magic of Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater’s rapturous romantic comedy, is that it scrunched all those sublime moments in young love into a single spontaneous night. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) feel the spark of an initial encounter, the thrill of learning what makes a person tick, the first kiss, the first fight, the first night in bed, the bittersweet goodbye – all set amidst the idyllic backdrop of Vienna. It’s the kind of fantasy we all pine for, and which the cinema can sometimes provide.

Taken together, Linklater’s trilogy forms a damn-near comprehensive portrait of the human heart in love.

Nine years later, Linklater showed us the emotional damage that such brushes with romantic perfection can cause. In Before Sunset, we find both characters clinging to their night together as a paragon of what romantic love can and should be. Jesse’s married and feels like he runs “a small nursery with someone I used to date.” Celine pens wistful waltzes about that night in 1994. Set against the impossible standard of their one night, any relationship would disappoint. Humdrum domesticity and familiar comforts couldn’t possibly compare to the idealized memory of that night in Vienna. A super-charged fling, after all, doesn’t have time to grow predictable. Any relationship, so long as it’s cut off before it can reach its full potential, will leave both partners romanticizing what could have been.

Which brings us to Before Midnight, the third installment in Linklater’s justifiably adored series. Before Midnight trails Jesse and Celine, again over a single day, as they navigate the pitfalls of long-term coupling. Like Before Sunset before it, the film does the impossible: it organically extends the perfect one-off film into something even richer and more rewarding. Over three films that span scarcely 48 hours, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have created one of the great achievements of romantic love depicted on the screen. They’ve made, however improbably, the most essential cinematic statement on how the heart evolves over time since Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.

Eight years after the events of Before Sunset, the film finds Jesse and Celine toward the end of a six-week sojourn in Greece. Long gone are the ephemeral pleasures of Before Sunrise. The two now raise a pair of daughters, trade inside jokes, and reminisce about the early years like any long-standing couple you might know. They know each other inside-out, but the engine that propelled them together in the first two films — spirited debate, the exchange of big ideas, an endless curiosity about the world around them — continues to run. Celine and Jesse aren’t the deathly silent couple next to you at the Chinese restaurant. They spar and philosophize like two souls who’d sooner die than grow comfortably numb.

In Greece, as in Vienna and Paris before it, they walk tranquil stone streets, exchanging insights and making each other laugh. You could spend a lot of time with these characters. They’re quick-witted big thinkers who know when to concede a point and when to take themselves less seriously. They walk and talk like idealized versions of ourselves: brainy but never pretentious, confessional but never self-indulgent, clever but never smug. They’re you on your best day.

Before Midnight shows these two characters at a crossroads. Since the events of Before Sunset, Jesse has divorced his wife and moved to Paris, where he lives with Celine and their two daughters. Jesse also has a teenaged son, whom he sees just twice a year when he visits from Chicago. If Before Midnight could even be said to have a plot-driven conflict, it kickstarts when Jesse laments that he’ll miss “the crucial time” of high school in his son’s life. This, to Celine, translates as a passive-aggressive suggestion that they move back to the States.

Much like Before Sunset, Before Midnight unfolds in near real time through fewer than a dozen scenes. Plot remains secondary in this world. Over low-profile long takes, Linklater trails these creations of his with total confidence in his actors to let them improvise and take detours. Fans of the previous films will notice subtle callbacks to the earlier pictures. Jesse has another fairly inane idea for a book (Sunrise saw him ramble about a 24-hour TV show, Sunset a book that takes place over the course of a single pop song). A climactic exchange harkens back to Jesse’s initial pick-up line in Before Sunrise (“Think of it as time travel…”). They both remain fond of role-playing as a means to speak truths, à la the celebrated “telephone your best friend” scene from the first feature.

The characters in Before Midnight never have all the answers. Like my favorite people, they explore ideas and get an inherent thrill from trying to understand the people around them.

This film, somehow, meets the stratospheric standard set by Sunrise and Sunset. Midnight had so many chances to embarrass itself. The very act of making a sequel to the beloved Sunrise/Sunset double feature must have felt like walking a high-wire without a net. Just as the leads in Sunrise left that film with unrealistic expectations, so did we as viewers. We’ve experienced a cinematic perfection, one that makes us terrified of anything that could sully its legacy.

Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy render all those fears moot. The trio recaptures what made the first films so compelling and adds new elements to the formula. For one, Before Midnight offers our first glimpse of Celine and Jesse within a group setting. Where the first films consisted of probing, one-on-one exchanges, Midnight gives us an extended dinner table sequence that places the couple among other vibrant personalities. The setting helps give the film its flexible, pluralistic views on romance. At the table we have cynics, pragmatists, romantics, libertines — all of whom speak with a heartfelt conviction that’s hard to refute. Characters discuss the futility of lifelong monogamy, and then grow humbled when they hear an elderly widow share vivid memories of her late husband of nearly 60 years. The characters in Before Midnight never have all the answers. Like my favorite people, they explore ideas and get an inherent thrill from trying to understand the people around them. They remain open-minded and curious, no matter how strong their beliefs. As Celine says in Before Sunrise, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”

before-midnight-124496_zpsb5e5e155Before Midnight, perhaps inevitably, also introduces technology into the series. To be sure, had Sunrise been set today, the film would have ended with Celine boarding her train, pulling out her smart phone, and scrolling through pictures of Jesse on Facebook. It sounds trite, but the times have turned Sunrise/Sunset into something of a quaint, pre-Internet period piece. Linklater integrates technology into the film’s larger obsession with the passage of time. Early in the film, Celine records a video of Jesse eating one of their daughter’s apples. The video, she jokes, will offer proof to their daughters in the future that Jesse was a negligent dad. Later, we meet a young couple who live miles apart but speak every day thanks to Skype. Sometimes they even lay their laptops in bed and watch the other person sleep. Technology, the film argues, shatters romance in some ways and fosters it in others. It makes connecting with others easier and at the same time less special. Viewing Before Midnight, I was reminded of the times I watched video footage of concerts or lectures I’ve attended. Without the video, I’d only have my memory — my imperfect, prone-to-romanticize memory. Like the characters in Sunrise, I’d let the event marinate in my mind, until I’d fully convinced myself of its importance. There’s no limit to how much I could idealize that night. But video, to a large extent, ruins that. It stops the mind’s wandering with an irrefutable reminder — not to mention a pixilated and poorly lit one — of how things actually looked and sounded.

Like the first two films, the writing and central performances carry Before Midnight. Delpy and Hawke have more chemistry than most real-life couples. The two play off one another with such effortless poise. Linklater and his camera are merely along for the ride as his characters challenge each others’ assumptions and crack wise. They give Linklater’s headiest lines a much-needed playfulness. The film occupies a strange, wonderful space: dialogue so smart it’s stylized, performances so natural you’d swear they’re improvised. The script, co-written by all three principals, is a parade of memorable anecdotes and turns of phrase. When I think of Before Midnight, I think of the little girls who want every cartoon to end, however nonsensically, with a wedding. I think of Cleopatra, the cat who birthed two kittens every summer — or was it seven? I think of affable intellectuals who submit to love even as they describe it as an act of “colonizing” another human being.

The film does the impossible: it organically extends the perfect one-off film into something even richer and more rewarding.

Taken together, Linklater’s trilogy forms a damn-near comprehensive portrait of the human heart in love. Sunrise was an intoxicating dream, the kind you romanticize for a lifetime. It’s the formative experience — the first love — that turns mythical over time. Sunset was the harsh hangover, the inevitable comedown after you love hard and lose. It relishes in the emotional blowback of a love lost. Midnight depicts the realities of long-term love, its messiness and compromises. It reveals the lack of happily-ever-after, even when you marry the idealized love of your life. It does this, somehow, and manages to be the funniest film of the trilogy, too. There’s enough here for cynics, believers, and agnostics of love to savor. Linklater and company have given the world another litmus test to measure if you or someone you know may actually be dead inside.

95/100 ~ AMAZING. Before Midnight does the seemingly impossible: It lives up to the stratospheric expectations set by its predecessors. The film recaptures what made the original features so compelling and adds new thematic layers. Any discussion of cinema’s greatest trilogies must now include Linklater’s Before triptych.

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I’m a communications officer at a nonprofit advocacy organization in New York City. At work, I pay OCD-like attention to words, images, and the impressions they leave. After hours, I watch directors do the same on celluloid and digital video. Cinema is the most effective natural stimulant I know.

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