Before Midnight is a transcendent movie-going experience: a heartbreakingly intelligent, sometimes funny, always honest, and ultimately unforgettable film. It stands as one of the most moving, raw, and mature portraits of relationships and love depicted on film. A career-topping achievement for writer-director Richard Linklater and co-writers/stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the film left me in awe of its intoxicating acting, writing, and direction.
Like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset before it, Before Midnight is a dialogue-centric film driven by the strength of the frank and revealing conversations between Jesse and Celine, the two astoundingly-realized characters created and performed by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively. But where Sunrise reflected the optimism of two naïve 20-somethings, and Sunset built on the wistfulness of the pair as 30-year-olds, Before Midnight is an unflinching look at a couple at a crossroad in their relationship, a couple whose passion has thinned out by the pressures of family life, rife with bottled issues, simmering from years of complex emotional history.
It’s been nine years since Jesse (Hawke) missed his plane in Paris to live with Celine (Delpy). They’re a couple now, parents of adorable twin girls, but unmarried. Linklater, who co-wrote the film with Delpy and Hawke, bring us up to speed via a stunning 15-minute extended take as the couple converses on the drive home after dropping Jesse’s son at the airport. The conversation, which broaches a myriad of topics–-from the mundane to the revealing–-is immediately arresting because of how unscripted it feels. Listening to them debate, laugh, and poke fun at each other, it becomes immediately clear that theirs is a passion that still burns 18 years later. But even the best relationships have their cracks and as Linklater, Delpy and Hawke so deftly illustrate.
This becomes evident early on when Jesse, still harboring regret over abandoning his son who lives with his mother in the U.S., confides that he would prefer moving closer to his son. Celine, who is on the verge of securing her dream job, accurately recognizes the emotion as residue from his having just dropped off his son at the airport. An argument brews, with Celine warning Jesse, “This is how people break up.” It’s a tense moment that suggests that while there is still a romance, the reality of maintaining a long-term relationship has reared its ugly head.
The topic of relationships, and how they evolve over time, a running theme of the film, is brought up again in a lengthy lunch sequence where Jesse and Celine, now accompanied by friends, all at different stages in their lives and relationships, compare notes on how things have changed since they first met (or lost) their significant others. The pleasure of watching this scene unfold, like the car sequence, is derived from how honest it feels. Writing great dialogue is a feat in and of itself, but writing natural-sounding dialogue that is also witty, funny and insightful is an achievement. The writing in Before Midnight is so good that you could watch the entire movie blindfolded and still be mesmerized.
The centerpiece of the film, however, and the part that convinced me I was watching something truly special, arrives two-thirds into it. The sequence–set in a hotel room gifted to the couple by their friends as a refuge from the distractions of their kids, work and friends–is also the evening that almost destroys them. Playing out in real time, the scene, which lasts a good half hour, is a marathon battle of low-blows and heartbreaking revelations that rapidly escalates into a shouting match that releases ten years of uncorked frustrations.
The raw power of the scene is only enhanced by the unobtrusive, almost voyeuristic, manner Linklater shoots it. Whereas many other filmmakers would chose to play up the drama using extreme close-ups, fast edits to enhance the emotions, Linklater’s minimalistic, selfless method greatly aids in letting us focus on his actors, thus indirectly immersing us into the scene. It goes without saying that Hawke and Delpy both deliver revelatory performances. They know these characters so well that distinguishing the actor from character is next to impossible.
Sunset, Sunrise, and Midnight are films that build and enrich one another. It may be an exercise in futility to try to decide which one is best, but this film feels like the culmination of everything that began in 1995. These movies are about love at different stages in our lives, about growing older, about realizing that fantasies eventually fade, and about ideals being slowly engulfed by reality. It’s about how love and relationships evolve with time. It’s about accepting someone for who they are, with all their faults, and keeping that spark alive in spite of it all. It shows that nothing is ever perfect–not even Jesse and Celine.
Before Midnight opens on May 31 in Miami-Dade county. It will be playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and AMC Sunset Place.