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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: Before Midnight

One of my favorite film critics has said "Before Midnight is a film that might as well be a documentary" and he's absolutely right. In as much as the entire "Before..." trilogy is a focus on the complexities of the human relationship, each film hones in on a particular aspect of how two people fall in love, try to rekindle it, and try to maintain it, respectively. I didn't catch Before Sunrise or Before Sunset in their initial release, it took a good friend or two to push them onto me, and I have to say I'm all the better for it. As each film in the series spans a gap of about 8 years between the entries, the sense of growing along with the characters is a part of the experience, and the depth of inherent knowledge we take from the pair of lovers due to their verboseness is a testament to its perfect chemistry of writing and performance. There's magic here that's only replicated in the "Up Series". When "Before Midnight" was announced last year, having been filmed in secret by Richard Linklater and his two stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, I was elated. So, did Jesse end up missing that plane? Was it even worth finding out? The answer is, thankfully, yes.

"Before Midnight" takes place in Greece, 8 years after Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) reunited in Paris after their one time encounter in Vienna. We learn that they've been in a relationship ever since, living in Paris and now the parents of twin girls. Jesse is in the midst of a bit of a tough custody situation over his son from the previous marriage, with whom he has a growing guilt about leaving behind in the US, particularly as he's reaching his more formative high school years. As they vacation in Greece with the girls, they stay at a Villa of a fellow writer/mentor of Jesse's and chat with those staying there. Eventually, Jesse's inner turmoil becomes a point of contention between them both, as a new opportunity for Celine runs counter to Jesse's mindset, and eventually erupts as they stay in a hotel room provided to them by one of the couples from the Villa.

The strength of "Before Midnight" doesn't lie in complex plotting or structure but in rich dialogue and in performances so real you feel like you know the people on screen in your own life. This is particularly true in the film's major turning point, which is the conversation in the hotel room between Jesse and Celine. There's a level of verisimilitude in the argument between them that feels like a heated discussion that all of my friends who are in relationships have had at some time or another (even if the actual topic matter is different). The fight lasts 20 minutes and operates in one long take, the norm for this Linklater series, and rather than having dramatic music swells and someone saying the "right thing at the right time", we see the entire discussion, warts and all. It's uncomfortable, it's visceral, and it's completely real. The film being workshopped by Linklater and his two stars, which has been the case since the second film, adds an incredible amount of gravity to scenes like this.

The ability for the actors to give a voice to the characters has allowed them to truly "know" the couple. Since the first film we've seen Jesse change from a cynical young man to a regretful but successful writer filled with longing to basically a pushover, whereas Celine has lost much of her idealistic edge over time to gaining a new sense of world-weariness and irrationality, the latter of which had been hiding under the surface for the past two films. The performances are as natural as any I've ever seen, and while both Hawke and Delpy have the good fortune of being able to develop these characters in line with their own personal experiences in aging, full credit must be given to the craft on display. Additionally, there's something to be said with how the films themselves are a statement about the age in which each is based particularly in how time can evolve relationships. We've all been 20 and deeply in love with egos a mile wide, and then 30 with adulthood beginning to truly bear down on us, and now 40 trying to reconcile a growing family and changing career paths. The series could have been called "the story of us" and I'd totally buy it.

In the previous two films, the focal point has only been on Jesse and Celine with no extra characters. "Before Midnight" takes the opportunity to introduce a few new faces into the mix during the other lengthy portion of the film, a dinner sequence at the Villa. These new characters are nowhere near as sketched out as two protagonists are, but they don't need to be. Instead they represent younger, slightly older, and elderly versions of Jesse and Celine and it gives them a possible glimpse of where their lives may head and where potential happiness may or may not lie. It's a scene that from any other filmmaker would appear heavy-handed, but Linklater infuses it with such naturalism and ease that it works perfectly and underscores the themes of the film, and strengthens its prequels.

While this is a new avenue for Linklater and co. to tread, they do opt to return to the familiar for two extended conversation sequences that bookend the dinner-party. It's here where viewers get an opportunity to take in the Greek landscape that Jesse and Celine are inhabiting via a car ride conversation that also doubles as a chance to plant the seed for the eventual strife that will fester throughout the rest of the film. Additionally, post-dinner party and pre-hotel stay, Jesse and Celine return to their "walking through a historic city" status quo of the previous two films. This is done in a much shorter burst than the domination of the film that we're used to in the previous entries, but this also underscores just how much things have changed for the couple. "Before Sunset" is indicative of the time they spent apart and their longing to return to the memories of "Before Sunrise", "Before Midnight" takes place post-eight years of spending time together and the weariness behind the romance is apparent.

"Before Midnight" posits a possibility that trying to return to the memories of better times may potentially reinvigorate dormant feelings. While it's difficult to call it an outright romantic film, it also isn't a tragic one either. More accurately, it's a realistic film that doesn't carry  the discomfort of a "Revolutionary Road" or the like. The idea of loving someone for who they've become rather than what you want them to be is foremost here, so maybe it is a romantic film after all.

After 8 years of wondering what Jesse decided to do, I'm so glad I got an opportunity to find out the next chapter in their story. "Before Midnight" is the rare third entry that actually works to the benefit of the films that came before it and I might make the argument that it's the finest trilogy ever made. Then again, in 8 years, there's always the chance we can check back in. If the quality remains this high, I certainly look forward to it.

I give it an A.
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