I dont fully trust my memory after 36 years of movie criticism, but I think Before Midnight contains the longest continuous argument Ive seen onscreen.
It begins after an hour of the third installment in Richard Linklaters 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 weve 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 youre trapped next door, wondering when theyll 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 its 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 others 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, thats 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 doesnt acknowledge his contributions as a parent and partner and causes her own misery. Both are right to varying degrees, yet its 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, weve spent enough time with these two people.
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