If “Before Midnight” does not quite live up to the daunting challenge of being as brilliant and moving as its predecessor, “Before Sunset,” this third chapter in the saga of Ethan Hawkes’ Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine sets a standard of artistry that dwarfs its competition in American movies — commercial as well as independent.
In fact, there are more than a few moments in Richard Linklater’s latest opus that can hold its against the very best of his film’s European model, the works of the late Eric Rohmer. As with Rohmer (who in turn had been profoundly influenced by Carl Dreyer), the focus of the film is on conversation as the substance of life itself.
Of course, as with the films of Woody Allen, also influenced by Rohmer, there is a condition to such a conviction, in that such is more plausible if the characters are well-read and articulate. In the case of Linklater, the challenge of creating a credible context for the character’s urbanity is solved expediently by making Ethan Hawkes’ Jesse a writer, and Julie Delpy’s Celine his equal in terms of her character’s academic background. However, Jesse and Celine’s intellectual agility serves them as much in the fluent expression of their feelings as it does in the exploration of their ideas.
When they were first introduced as recent college graduates in 1994’s “Before Sunrise,” Jesse was not the successful writer he’d become, but only an aspiring author. However their long night of conversation and courtship in Vienna, culminating in lovemaking in a park before the sun came up, would serve as the material for the book that would make Jesse’s career.
That was the starting point of 2004’s “Before Sunset,” when Celine discovered that her life was propelling another man she only knew briefly, albeit intensely, to fame and prosperity. However, after they became reacquainted at Jesse’s book signing in Paris, she soon learned that he had entered into a deeply unhappy marriage, which had produced a son, and that he still had very strong feelings for Celine.
The agony of their situation — will Jesse leave his family for Celine? — constituted the basic drama of “Before Sunset”, while the one extensive conversation that served as the material for that film allowed the two protagonists communicate their deepest feelings about love and life with each other and with the audience.
“Before Sunset” concluded on a note of tantalizing ambiguity — had Jesse, in fact, made his decision? It was an ambiguity that also challenged spectators to take intuitive leaps of faith in their own lives. Thus, it was appropriate that this question remained unanswered, and perhaps, as the late, great Andrew Sarris said in his appraisal of the film, that there should there be no more sequels.
Hence, the greatness of “Before Sunset” is slightly diminished by the third chapter in 19 years in the saga of Jesse and Celine. Now with “Before Midnight”, which begins with Jesse escorting his 14 year-old son through an airport in Athens so the boy can fly back to Chicago where he lives full-time with his mother, the answer to the question posed in the last film is made clear. Jesse divorced his wife, who then retained custody of their child, so he could marry Celine, with whom he has twin girls.
So thus the focus thus shifts from romantic intrigue to marital intrigue; now that his son has entered adolescence, Jesse wants to be in his son’s life, in Chicago, while Celine feels that would result in a termination of her career aspirations as an environmental scientist in France.
This conflict between both partner’s differing needs arises while they are on vacation in Greece, at the invitation of Jesse’s writerly bohemian friends. An extensive second act in the film involves the sharing from a variety of couples and singles — young, middle-aged and old — on love, life and happiness. Afterwards, Jesse and Celine leave and then initiate a long conversation where they probe each other’s feelings, and advocate for their individual needs.
As with “Before Sunset”, the script was developed by Linklater, and the actors portraying Jesse and Celine: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The latter two thespians, interestingly, have made forays into developing their own careers as writers and directors, and the script that is produced is redolent with brilliant exchanges between Jesse and Celine as they struggle to find a balance between their needs as individuals and the necessity for compromise that a relationship entails. The acting of the leads, meanwhile, communicates an electrifying authenticity of feeling.
It bears mention that whereas Julie Delpy had become notably leaner in “Before Sunset,” to the point of Celine deriding herself as “fat” in her first encounter with Jesse, in “Before Midnight”, both the actress and the character now show the combined effects of motherhood and a slowing metabolism in middle-age. Celine even refers to herself as “fat-assed”. Yet in looking more like most women do at her age, she also projects a deeper radiance, as if a truer woman was finally emerging after the bloom of youth.
For all its virtues, however, the conciliatory conclusion comes off as less-than-credible, largely because it lacks the epiphany or renunciation that resolution in drama entails. The negatives in the relationship are given more weight than the positive, and it is hard to imagine Jesse and Celine together for a fourth film. Nonetheless, the level of feeling and craft in “Before Midnight” is often exquisite. It is currently playing at Cine Hoyts.