Directed By: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick
It’s been 18 years since the sparks of Jesse & Celine’s first encounter flew on a train bound for Vienna, and 9 years since the hope & ambiguity of their second chance meeting in Paris. Did Jesse make his flight? Did love conquer all? The beauty of Linklater’s first two Before… films was their convincing portrayal of a developing relationship. Jesse and Celine’s instant and relatable chemistry underlined the excitement of those crucial first steps couples take on the road to happiness. Hopefully, such instant attraction will eventually pave the way to a lifetime of love & companionship and that’s where we find Celine and Jesse now; together and in love, but with cracks starting to show.
So yes, Jesse did miss his flight home from Paris in 2004, and now finds himself divorced, struggling to keep a solid relationship with his son from his first marriage. In a telling opening, we find Jesse uncomfortably trying to say goodbye to his son in a small Greek airport. It’s a poignant change from the mile-a-minute dialogue that opened the first two films and presents us with a vulnerable Jesse, worlds away from the confident novelist we left in Celine’s Parisian apartment 9 years ago. Thankfully, Celine is waiting for Jesse outside, along with their sleeping twin daughters and as the car pulls away from the airport, normal service is resumed; we learn that Celine and Jesse, along with their daughters and his son, have just spent 6 blissful weeks in Greece and this is the last day of their holiday.
As before, the dialogue between our two central characters purrs along, their obvious affection for each other highlighted in the unending banter they share. However, as the conversations turn to the subject of profession, notably Celine’s, we begin to see where the differences in their relationship are forming; Celine wanting to stay in Paris and potentially embark on her dream job, Jesse working on a convoluted sounding forth novel, and wanting to move nearer to his estranged son in America. Hawke and Delpy are both so natural in the roles by now that it feels like they are their characters, bringing a heartbreaking intensity to the films final third, as Jesse and Celine’s frustrations boil over into aggression. It’s electrifying cinema, Linklater’s expert direction and lengthy handheld shots giving the scenes the same sense of reality as the previous films; that we are simply observers to Jesse and Celine’s real relationship.
With the subject sadder than before, it’s a testament to the writers (as with Sunset, Linklater’s script was co-written by Hawke and Delpy) that the film makes you laugh and smile so much. Those who have followed Jesse and Celine’s relationship from its inception will already know the joy of watching these two characters just talk, and newcomers will not be disappointed. Jesse remains the loveable man-child to Celine’s mature realist; circumstances may have changed, but the glue that holds them together has not diminished.
It’s because of this that the films final scene feels too neat, leaving little air for mystery. When all is said and done, the special bond these characters share still holds true, their destiny still clear. It’s less a failing and more a disappointment, the captivating uncertainty of Sunset’s understated and evidently unbeatable ending, unable to be recaptured here. However, this shouldn’t diminish the cinematic superiority of Before Midnight, which is at its best simultaneously heartbreaking, heartwarming and heartfelt.