One of the great movie romances of the modern era achieves its richest and fullest expression in “Before Midnight.” Exquisite, melancholy, hilarious and cathartic, Richard Linklater’s third walking-and-talking collaboration with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy turns a summer night’s Grecian idyll into a typically digressive and cumulatively overwhelming essay on the joys and frustrations of (spoiler alert!) long-term commitment and parenthood. Answering the question of whether we needed another date with Jesse and Celine with a resounding yes, this wise and wondrously intimate picture should gross somewhere in the modest vicinity of its predecessors while sending faithful fans, and perhaps a few new ones, into the emotional stratosphere.
If 1994’s “Before Sunrise” was a touching paean to possibility and 2004’s “Before Sunset” a piercing ode to regret, then “Before Midnight” encompasses all these feelings and more within a full-bodied portrait of a devoted couple facing early middle-age. A marvel of narrative compression, the screenplay (like “Sunset,” written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy) is equal parts naturalism and exposition, strategically updating the audience on the characters’ busy lives while keeping immediacy and spontaneity at the fore.
To cut to the chase, American novelist Jesse (Hawke) is now divorced and living in Paris with Celine (Delpy) and their twin daughters (young Jennifer and Charlotte Prior). It’s the last day of a blissful summer vacation for the whole family, having spent the past six weeks at a writer colleague’s guest house on Greece’s Southern Peloponnese peninsula. A lovely opening sequence finds Jesse at the airport saying goodbye to his adolescent son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), and trying hard to connect one last time with the bored-looking kid before putting him on a plane back to his mom’s in Chicago.
As Jesse, Celine and the two sleeping girls drive back to the guest house, the film slips effortlessly into the duo’s immediately recognizable back-and-forth rhythms. Here again is the vivacious, neurotic Celine, mercilessly ribbing the sensitive, grizzled Jesse about his annoying habits while he teases her with a what-me-worry grin. They are, as the two earlier movies have shown, an improbably fun couple to be around. But “Before Midnight” digs deeper.
There follows an alfresco farewell dinner with their affable host (Walter Lassally) and his other guests, among them a young b.f. and g.f. (Yannis Papadopoulos and Ariane Labed) and a husband and wife (Panos Koronis and Athina Rachel Tsangari). Their time together occasions much philosophizing about literature, love, sexual mores in the computer age, differences between men and women, and other such topics that would seem to have exhausted the possibilities for great dialogue, a notion disproved here to continually moving and amusing effect.
Just when it seems the film is going to be less of a two-hander than a full-on party, Jesse and Celine head off to spend their last night in Greece alone at a nearby hotel. As the two walk together toward their destination, they begin a conversation that harks back to the pivotal moments of “Sunrise” and “Sunset,” abounding in hypothetical musings of what might or might not have been. Yet the memories of the past soon give way to the worries of the present as the script unleashes its piece de resistance, a doozy of a conversation that unfolds entirely, over at least half an hour, within the tight confines of their hotel suite.
Shot at first with a startling yet completely natural level of sexual intimacy that the first two movies simply couldn’t have allowed for, the scene escalates almost imperceptibly, then with point-of-no-return abandon, into an argument. The resulting duologue is one for the actors’ handbooks, so furious are the accusations and recriminations that fly as the two dredge up some 20 years’ worth of history. Remarkably, the scene’s carefully modulated intensity only heightens the comedy as Celine and especially Jesse work in zinger after zinger.
Honoring all that was memorable about its forebears while taking the story to new depths of catharsis, “Before Midnight” stands as a unique and uniquely satisfying entry in what has shaped up to be an outstanding screen trilogy (not to preclude the possibility of a fourth chapter). Inadvisable though it may be to go in cold, the film’s more robust content provides strong entry points for viewers meeting these characters for the first time, and could even win over those who expressed impatience with the more evanescent first two pics.
Delivering vanity-free turns in which no apparent effort has been made to disguise wrinkles or sagging eyelids, the actors have melded so completely with their roles as to seem incapable of a false note; rewardingly, Hawke for the first time seems to truly match Delpy in emotional stature. The lightly self-reflexive script includes more than a few references to and examples of role play, reminding viewers of the artificiality of two characters who couldn’t seem more authentic.
The performances are aided by the casual mastery of Linklater’s direction, staging many of the outdoor conversations in flowing, unobtrusive long takes; by contrast, editor Sandra Adair repeatedly carves up the interior space during the characters’ heated quarrel, emphasizing the emotional and physical distance between them. Graham Reynolds’ music ties scenes together with the lightest of ease, and Christos Voudouris’ lensing beautifully captures the fading sunlight and deepening shadows against the scenic Greek locations.