Eventually, Jesse and Celine had to grow up. What wasn’t certain was that anyone would still care what happened to the young romantics of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) once they slid into middle age. But Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight turns out to be a bright, good-humored, and painfully combative love story that stings more than it soothes. In it, modern cinema’s most enduring couple discovers what life is like after peeling back the veil of conjoined love and discovering the specters of selfishness lurking behind. Every moment of this swift yet relaxed film (time-compressed like the first two, it all happens over just one sunny day and moonlit evening) feels like a negotiation or a skirmish, viciously fought.
There’s a throwaway joke about halfway through, where Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are walking in the postcard-beautiful village in the southern Peloponnese where they’re vacationing and chatting, as always. Jesse points out what he’s not hearing: the pitter-patter of their adorable little twin girls. It’s a reminder of just how different this story has been so far since the first two films, and how much life has crashed into their once self-contained tangle of literature, theorizing, and jokes.
In Sunrise, Celine and Jesse meet on a train and spend a day walking around jabbering, while nine years later in Sunset they jam another lifetime’s worth of conversation into a tiny pocket of time. Now, it’s nine more years later, they’re married with kids and middle-aged, with countless demands on their time besides each other. It’s hard to remember another film where the ache of life’s passing, and the ghostly memory of youthful freedoms has been more piercingly evoked.
The fissures which once caused sparks between the lovebirds have only deepened under the weight of marriage. The two are like they always were, only more so. Celine, who works on renewable energy issues, is suffused with a prickly feminism and preemptive rages that flare up roughly every few minutes. Meanwhile, Jesse, a novelist whose first two books were thinly-veiled recollections of their first encounters, is as ever the stunted adolescent and jokey, narcissistic creative angst machine. Over the course of the film, a deceptively easy-going sprawl of lazy meals and intricately theoretical conversation set against the gorgeous backdrop of Aegean waters and sun-dappled villas, it becomes less and less certain they will still be a couple by the time it’s over.
Jesse’s ugly divorce left him separated from his preteen son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), whom he sees off in the film’s opening. His guilt over missing Hank’s childhood metastasizes over the course of the film and makes him throw out a suggestion about maybe moving the family from Paris to Chicago, where Hank and Jesse’s ex-wife live. By the end of the film, this land mine of a thought has started a chain reaction of vituperative name-calling that doesn’t auger well for their future. Through it all, they barely mention their girls, who are only used as verbal weapons to wound the other. Linklater (who co-wrote the film with Delpy and Hawke, each by now filmmakers themselves) even concocts a long dinner scene where the two are surrounded by three other couples: one younger, one their age, and one older; all of them relating to the challenges of love and life in wiser ways than Jesse and Celine.
But through it all, Delpy and Hawke manage a deft dance where, just when it seems impossible that these two could still even like, let alone love, each other, they share a moment or a joke that brings the memory of their shared romance flooding back. The filmmakers weren’t stupid; amidst such gorgeous surroundings, how could anyone completely fall out of love? Nine years from now, when hopefully this team has put together the next installment of their series — the closest that narrative film has come to Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentaries — we’ll find out.