Review: Before Midnight (2013)

Before Midnight solidifies Richard Linklater's trilogy as an all-time classic exploration of romance and aging.

In Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine met on a train in Austria in 1995. They spent the evening together in Vienna, discussing their hopes, aspirations and worldviews all the while accidentally falling in love. The next time they saw each other was nine years later in Paris in Before Sunset. Jesse was on a book tour, having published a novel slightly fictionalizing his night with Celine. The book drew Celine out of the woodwork. She appeared at his book signing and they spent a late-afternoon together before Jesse had to catch his plane back to the states. Fast-forward another nine years and we have Before Midnight. Jesse and Celine are on vacation in Greece and only shades of the youthful lovers of Before Sunrise remain.

If Before Sunrise is the most enjoyable and romantic of the films and Before Sunset is the most beautiful, Before Midnight is the most honest. Jesse and Celine’s love was romantic in Before Sunrise, forbidden in Before Sunset, and now it has merely become mundane. Familiarity has bred some form of contempt, even if Jesse and Celine still have an unparalleled ability to talk at length with each other. This time around their discussions focus on their past and each other’s intended meanings and non-meanings. All those little gestures and tics that are endearing early in a relationship have become irritating for these two. What these characters say isn’t what they mean, and what they don’t say are the loudest statements of all.

Like the first two entries, this is a talky film, but for something so driven by realistic dialogue, Before Midnight is hardly unstructured or sloppy. This is miles away from the rambling of mumblecore. There’s nothing loose about it, except for its emotions. It allows its characters to flow from bitterness to anger to humour within seconds, the way real people do.

One of the things that charmed me so much about the first two films in the trilogy is how Jesse and Celine's observations seem taken verbatim from the thoughts of the audience. In Before Sunrise, Jesse’s comment (returned to in this film) that he felt like he wasn't really living his life and that he was just his adolescent self looking forward in time, struck me as one of those movie lines you rarely come across: one that seems ripped from your own mind and experiences.

In Before Midnight, this authenticity comes out in the arguments between Jesse and Celine. Jesse’s thoughts are completely male-sided and Celine’s are completely female-sided, and the bitter truth and energy of their arguments comes from how perfectly incompatible their viewpoints seem. Their arguments show how perversely ill-equipped men and women can be in their efforts to understand each other, but also how fantastic it is that that men and women try to. It’s also in these fights that Hawke and Delpy’s contributions to the screenplay stand out. They play the scenes honestly because they crafted the lines from their own experience.

In an interesting connection the sun-bleached Greek setting reminded me of the sun-soaked Tuscany of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. As well, whether deliberately or not, some of Linklater’s preoccupations this time round seem to echo that film’s interest in authenticity and reinvention in relationships.

This connection probably also comes across in  the fact that Before Midnight exists more deliberately in the real world than its predecessors. It doesn’t have the romantic conceit of the first or the self-reflexivity of the second. Not that those films are unrealistic, but this one brings both of those past events into a startlingly real world context. What makes this film still a romance at its heart is its exploration of the notion that romance is a fantasy shared by lovers.

Common sense dictates that it’s foolish and silly to get off the train with a complete stranger in order to fulfill some kind of fantasy. However, Before Midnight tells you that real romance is throwing common sense to the wind, entering the fantasy with your lover, and sharing that dream and getting off the train together. This honesty, perception, and romance is what makes Before Midnight so great.

9 out of 10

Before Midnight (2013, USA/Greece)

Directed by Richard Linklater; written by Linklater & Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy; starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.