Relationships laid bare on a Greek island, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight seduces with its beauty, intelligence and wit. But is this love?
Through The Olive Trees by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The third instalment of Jesse and Céline‘s thirty-year love story, it’s impossible not to fall for Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight with its cleverness, humour and charm. The couple’s by-now familiar shtick of relationship histrionics and deep-thinking conversations, developed in conjunction with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is taken up another decade later, with Jesse and Céline on holiday in Greece with their two daughters. In a relationship for the first time, their true love, previously beleaguered in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset by time, distance and failed marriages, seems unassailable – happily married, mutually supportive and with a family of their own. But as they wander the countryside of Kalamata, recapturing their youthful banter, emotional handwringing and obsessive philosophies, cracks begin to appear that rapidly threaten to tear them apart.
On vacation in Greece, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is saying goodbye to his son Hank at Kalamata Airport. With Céline (Julie Delpy) and sleeping daughters Nina and Ella, they drive back to publisher Patrick’s villa where they have been staying. The men talk about writing while the women prepare the meal and the conversations continue as they sit down for lunch. Friends Stefanos and Ariadni have bought them a night’s stay in a hotel as a farewell gift, a moment for themselves without the children, which Jesse and Céline only reluctantly give in to. But as they walk across the island and through the town, they talk about their hopes, dreams and fears, their future and their past. But their romantic getaway is disrupted by an argument, and when Céline storms out, Jesse goes after her wearing his heart on his sleeve to win her back.
Just like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset before it, Before Midnight is a real-time amble through the relationship dynamics of Jesse and Céline with all its ups and downs, thought-provoking tangents, doubts and misplaced certainties. They’re essentially unchanged, Jesse the wide-eyed dreamer and now successful novelist, Céline the neurotic pragmatist deciding on whether to accept a new high-powered job. But the almost indiscernible crux of Before Midnight centres around Jesse and Céline’s feelings of fulfilment and the possibility of change within their marriage. They have ended up living in Paris (for healthcare and childcare reasons) but Jesse wants to move them to New York to be closer to 14-year-old Henry, labouring under paternal guilt at not being around to throw baseball with his son. The in-car joke that Jesse has initiated a ticking bomb that will break their family up is only half the truth though, as husband and wife head in different directions, Céline breaking up their marriage and family with a devastatingly clean, “I don’t think I love you any more.”
There’s great even-handedness to their discussions, and both Hawke and Delpy have their fair share of witty one-liners, original thinking and incisive argument. Nevertheless, Before Midnight isn’t an impartial witness to their conjugal and gladiatorial tussles. We remain with Jesse when Céline storms out, his perspective underpinned by the weight of cinema, which always comes out in support of tireless dreamers trying to win back lost lovers. But it’s unique to Richard Linklater’s trilogy that Jesse can harness the nostalgic magic of cinema itself, recalling Before Sunrise and the naïve romantic Céline fell in love with twenty years ago in Vienna. Before Midnight is amusingly self-referential, referring to “this time” and “that time” with knowing wryness. And their discussions, illuminating as ever, beautifully scripted and acted by Delpy and Hawke, are meticulously crafted; each scene focusing in its own meandering but very controlled way on a different topic – in gender-specific groups, as a family round the lunch table, comparing notes in couples or as individuals en garde. There’s enormous authenticity to it, like Céline’s topless shouting, bringing a familiar but stale intimacy to their argument, and each dialogue feels real and unforced. Yet beneath the creative freedom of this collection of conversations, there’s a very deliberate story arc – a jealous Greek god, demanding the failure of their romantic getaway and the uncertainty of their relationship in exchange for their next instalment, the possibilities wide-open.
Like flies to wanton boys are Céline and Jesse, held hostage to Linklater’s options for a fourth film, and the open ending here falls just shy of trite, giving the impression of closure but without resolving Céline’s doubts. There’s a particular focus in Before Midnight on their individual takes on rational versus emotional thinking, and their love becomes a story to be interpreted or believed, “If you want true love, this is it. If you can’t see it, you’re blind.” Like Jesse’s joking admonition that their daughters will remember this holiday differently, Before Midnight is a reflection on the difference of perspective, a kind of cinematic cubism where almost everything is simultaneously both right and wrong. Just like a relationship. The only question is, how long can it last?
Before Midnight is released on 21st June 2013 in the UK