Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: Before Midnight (2013)

Director: Richard Linklater

There's a scene in Before Midnight where Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) watch the sun set behind the mountains of the Greek Peloponnese peninsula. Celine watches it intently, anticipating its inevitable sinking: "It's still there, it's still's gone." I've seen sunsets in countless films, but this one had an especially poignant resonance, as I realised that it wouldn't be long until one of my all-time favourite trilogies would come to an end, and unlike the sun, it will not rise again. Unless Richard Linklater has a significant epiphany in the future, this is the last we'll see of Jesse and Celine, the couple we first met in 1995's Before Sunrise, and who rekindled their flame nine years later in Before Sunset. In the first film, Jesse wooed Celine on a train, convincing her to alight for a spontaneous Viennese adventure. In the second film, the two meet by chance at a Parisian bookstore during one leg of Jesse's book tour. Despite sharing some intimate moments in both of these films, there was never a sense of commitment between these two souls. It was the transience of their encounters that made the films so special. Fast forward another nine years to Before Midnight, where we learn quite early that Jesse and Celine are now a fully-fledged couple with twin daughters. Personally, I consider it the least enjoyable film in the trilogy, but this is only because it's the one most grounded in reality.

How does one go about explaining the plot to a film from the Before trilogy? I could just say "Jesse and Celine talk a lot" and be done with it, but that would be a great disservice to the film's depth. As with the previous two films, the plot is secondary to the words that spring forth from Jesse's and Celine's mouths. Alternatively, you could say that the words of Jesse and Celine are the only reason a plot exists in the first place. The film opens with Jesse dropping off his son Hank at the airport. Hank was mentioned in Before Sunset, but this is the first time we've caught a glimpse of him. He lives in Chicago with Jesse's ex-wife. Meanwhile, Celine is contemplating a job in the government. There is some light bickering in the car on the way back to a friend's house, where Jesse and Celine lock horns about Hank's upbringing and Celine's career prospects. Celine remarks, "This is how people start breaking up," and the genius of her delivery is that we don't know if this foreshadows anything or if she's merely being facetious. 

There is a lengthy dinner party scene back at their friend's house, which is imbued with the naturalism that characterised the previous two films. There is a lot of friendly banter, but we also hear a few harsh truths. A widow acknowledges that everyone on the planet is "just passing through." This is followed by a bittersweet toast: "To passing through." The most remarkable thing about this dinner scene is that we are hearing the insights of characters other than Jesse and Celine. In Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, any characters who are not Jesse or Celine appear on the periphery. The inclusion of additional characters in Before Midnight effectively humanises Jesse and Celine. They are not fantastical projections of the viewer's mind. They exist for reasons other than propelling a love story in a motion picture. These two people have an impact on the lives of others.  

Allow me to return to the relationship between Jesse and Celine. This film is easily the most mature in the trilogy, as it dares to demolish the myth of eternal bliss attained through devotion to another person. While Jesse and Celine were not teenagers when they first met on that train in 1995, there was undeniably an element of adolescent infatuation between them. We saw their relationship reach another dimension in Before Sunset. You could tell they wanted more than just a casual fling. Still, this didn't prepare me for the emotional intensity or realism of Before Midnight. Conflict had to arise at some point, didn't it? After all, you can't have a narrative without complication. The thing that impressed me the most about this film was the nature of the conflict. There is nothing melodramatic about it. We are presented with two adults who have realised their biological clocks are unsympathetic towards their problems. It is possible that they would live better lives without each other, but their relationship has been built on mythologies and nights under starry skies, and it's difficult to discount sentiment in trying times.

The reason for such strong interplay between these two characters is that Delpy and Hawke contributed to the film's screenplay, just as they did with Before Sunset. Celine and Jesse are more than "roles" for this gifted pair. They are alternative personas. Delpy and Hawke first inhabited these characters in 1995, and they seem just as real 18 years later. It's almost a bit disappointing to know they have never been an off-screen couple.

As for the trilogy itself, it thoroughly deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest ever made. Some would argue that the film titles sound cheesy. I know I certainly did before I watched Before Sunrise. That was the day I learned to never judge a book by its cover (or more to the point: a film by its title). It's difficult to even conceive of these three works as "films". They feel like gatherings where Linklater whips out a camera and instructs his leads to play it by ear. I've got to hand it to Richard Linklater. He's one of Hollywood's quiet achievers, although I doubt he'd identify with the contemporary Hollywood ethos. I have seen seven of his films (I need to catch up on some), and with the exception of Fast Food Nation (which I need to rewatch), I have loved them all. In fact, his obscure adaptation of Eric Bogosian's play SubUrbia was once my third-favourite film of all time. It's somehow dropped out of my top 20 altogether, but I still think very highly of it. He cares about his characters more than anything, and empathy—not escapism—is the main reason I go to the movies.       

My final thought about Before Midnight concerns its ending. Some would argue that the narrative of Jesse and Celine's relationship is left hanging in the air, and that this diminishes the film's impact. That's what I initially thought. I have since thought it over, and heck, does anyone truly know what life holds for them in a decade, a year, or even tomorrow?

4/5 stars. 

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