Did we really need a third Before Sunrise? Over the course of a late night and another afternoon, nearly nine years apart, Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) met by chance in Vienna and then in Paris, talked about and around both critical and trivial subjects, pushed and pulled away from each other, until our time with them ended on a weighty moment of uncertainty. Before Sunset was that improbable sequel that built upon its predecessor in frank and arguably necessary ways, evoking a decade’s worth of failed dreams and asking whether they could ever be fulfilled. To accept that film’s swooningly open-ended conclusion was to agree that, whether this bickering couple ended up together or not, just about every repressed grievance or sentiment between two lovers could be talked through, considered, and transformed as a result.
But Celine and Jesse have now found themselves at another standstill — married, with children — and their experience has necessarily become more fragmented. Unlike Sunset’s real-time excursion on the boardwalks of Paris, Midnight unfolds as a series of carefully orchestrated setpieces taking place on the last day of their six-week vacation in Greece, making it both the most visually sunny and thematically bittersweet entry of the series. As ever, director Richard Linklater and his two leads, all of who co-wrote the film, address issues of fidelity, posterity and community with fluent panache, neurotically maneuvering an afternoon in the birthplace of Western civilization. “Don’t be too consumed with romantic love,” insists a guest (Attenberg director Athina Rachel Tsangari) of the literary commune where they have been temporary residents, over a leisurely lunch chat on courtship that sneakily forms the film’s centerpiece — but it’s fair to say that Celine and Jesse have more pressing issues on their minds.
Looking every bit the scruffy, cocksure writer he intended to be, Jesse has built a literary legacy on memoirs of the first two “times,” but his progeny, the young Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is merely on loan from his ex-wife for the summer. Jesse is worried that he isn’t spending enough time with his son, and attempts to convince Celine to move with him from Paris to Chicago; but Celine, unwilling to sacrifice her career prospects in Paris, won’t have it. This argument is the basis for the reverberations of conversation throughout the movie, which expectedly deal with nostalgia for the past as much as practicalities for the future, all of which impinge on their planned romantic night out in an upscale hotel room. A shouting match between Hawke and Delpy, brilliantly sustained by two actors whose chemistry has further naturalized over time, is only ever undermined by its gender essentialism — a fact that finally lays bare the limits of these characters’ empathy for each other, and points the film towards its capitulating finish.
Like the preceding two films, Linklater and his collaborators gracefully articulate romantic love as a self-consciously loquacious enterprise, where every choice and verbal exchange is qualified by a certain point in time and a particular set of circumstances. Largely plotless, their durational scheme is always right there in the title, so that we already know when it’s going to end. It’s this purity of exchange and formal forthrightness that makes these films such a pleasure to watch, but though Before Midnight is brilliantly performed and executed, the stage of Celine and Jesse has begun to feel hermetic. Abbas Kiarostami’s far more cagey Certified Copy recently explored similar territory, but it depicted romantic love firmly in the performative mode, as its characters’ private lives eluded us at every turn. Before Midnight suggests that though we feel like we know Celine and Jesse, it’s possible that they now know each other too well. If this is the conclusion to their story, it’s a fittingly exhaustive one.