Richard Linklater has all but assured himself a spot in film studies syllabi forever more with his trilogy of films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and now, Before Midnight. Employing the same two talented actors, and revisiting them several years apart, the filmmaker provides a faascinating, and visually-stunning, character study. But the films, all penned by Linklater, also delve deep into love both as a theory and a reality.
The conceit began in 1995’s Before Sunrise, in which cynical yet romantic Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets his hyper-intelligent dreamgirl Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train headed to Vienna, Austria. We follow the American boy and French girl as they attempt to parse the meaning of life, and each other, wandering the Viennese streets until Jesse’s early morning flight back to the States. They’ve fallen in love, but don’t exchange contact information — too cheesy for these pretentious thinkers — promising instead to meet back up in six months at the same train station.
Nine years later, the two cross paths again in Before Sunset, released in 2004. This time in Paris, the characters (she works for an NGO, he’s a novelist) reckon with the fact that their youthful no-contact decision resulted in almost a decade of misery — both are trapped in half-assed relationships, the one cold comfort being Jesse’s four-year-old son. After an afternoon of more walking and talking, they admit that neither ever fell out of love with the other, and it’s implied, after Celine sings a self-penned panty-dropper, that this time Jesse doesn’t return to America.
While Sunrise and Sunset are two of the most romantic films made in the past 25 years, Before Midnight gleefully throws a bucket of water on them. Set in 2012, Celine and Jesse live in Paris with young twin girls. But Jesse’s choice to leave his family to start a new one with Celine still tugs at him. The bickering starts almost as soon as the two share a frame, devolving from light teasing into Scenes from a Marriage-esque brutality during a trip to the idyllic Greek coast. Neurotic Celine has blossomed into “Mayor of Crazytown,” as Jesse puts it, unable to reconcile her choice to be a mother with her feminist ideals. She copes by picking fights and lobbing numerous (and often funny) insults at her life partner; “Mr. Booktour” is a “closet macho” and a lazy one at that. He brushes off her existential dilemma as mere womanly emotion. Instead of wondering whether the couple will get together, this time the audience constantly anticipates their last straw.
It’s at once unsettling and reassuring. On the one hand, not even these romantic icons can maintain a perfect union forever; on the other hand, not even these romantic icons can maintain a perfect union forever. That kind of committed love is still imperfect, and just maintaining an acceptable level of imperfection takes an incredible amount of work, even for these sexy soul mates.
Dir. Richard Linklater; writ. Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy; feat. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (R)
Opens Friday at Santikos Bijou
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