I don’t fully trust my memory after 36 years of movie criticism, but I think “Before Midnight” contains the longest continuous argument I’ve seen onscreen.
It begins after an hour of the third installment in Richard Linklater’s trilogy about lovers in an 18-year relationship, and it continues without cease until almost the end of the film. All three movies end ambiguously, but this one suggests the couple we’ve followed through “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” ought not, perhaps, to be together.
As in the superb 2004 “Sunset,” Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wrote their dialogue, along with director Linklater. (Linklater and Kim Krizan wrote the 1995 “Sunrise.”) Every outburst sounds painfully authentic; both actors have had messy breakups and may have spoken these blunt, recriminatory phrases in real life. But as they sling bile in their hotel room, you may feel you’re trapped next door, wondering when they’ll finally shut up or grow up.
In this installment, Jesse and Celine (Hawke and Delpy) have reached their 40s with twin daughters.
We get flashes of the couple who met on a train for one remarkable night in “Sunrise” and the pair who consummated their relationship unexpectedly in “Sunset.” Mostly, though, we see middle-aged people whose anxieties have driven a wedge between them.
He worries that his ex-wife in Chicago has begun to turn his 14-year-old son against him. She frets that her daily responsibilities with the twins, whom she never escapes, will prevent her from taking a dream job in Paris, where they all live.
A summer vacation in Greece, which is ending as the movie begins, has diverted them from these anxieties. But when Jesse hints that the four of them consider moving to America so he can be more of a father to his son, Celine announces – half-kiddingly, half-not – that this day marks the beginning of the end, because their needs will be mutually exclusive.
Linklater shoots the film in long scenes. Sometimes the camera prowls through village streets with Celine and Jesse; sometimes it moves gently around a dinner table. But it’s never quick, sudden or intrusive.
That dinner scene shows the protagonists where they were 18 years ago, where they could be now and where they might eventually go.
A young couple in their early 20s burn with passion about love and art. A Greek husband and wife in their 40s are reconciled to each other’s shortcomings and remain in love. Two old people provide wise input about the things that last in a relationship – and, sadly, some things that may not.
But Jesse and Celine can see only each other. And soon enough, that’s all we see: Kids, friends and even the town fade away, as they lock themselves in humorless battle in the hotel room.
She perceives him as a self-absorbed American teenager who has never understood her needs. He views her as a whiner who doesn’t acknowledge his contributions as a parent and partner and causes her own misery. Both are right to varying degrees, yet it’s impossible not to wish that each would mature a bit.
Delpy has said in an interview that it might be interesting to check in with these characters once a decade, following them into very old age. But I think the trilogy has come to its natural conclusion: However you interpret the ending, we’ve spent enough time with these two people.
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