It was 2007 and there was a sale on at Soundz, a terrible music chain in New Zealand and the competition for the music shop that I worked in at the time.
I was rifling through the DVD bin and still in the midst of my Ethan Hawke crush after watching Reality Bites. His name jumped out from a DVD cover and on the front were two figures sitting in front of a beautiful sunset backdrop. Julie Delpy, the female lead, was an actress I was recently intrigued by after watching the Three Colours trilogy and the DVD was only $10.00 so I bought it. Later that night as I was watching, I started to realize that this was in fact a sequel to an earlier film where the two characters had met. Nevertheless I continued watching, utterly enthralled by what I was seeing and hearing of these two characters.
I quickly set about ordering the first movie ‘Before sunrise’ and although it was lovely I wasn’t as in love with it as I was with Before sunset. Perhaps it was the growth of the characters and the height and depth of their conversations as they met again 9 years later that really struck me. The effortless acting, subtle nuances and character traits are so thoughtfully ingrained by Delpy and Hawke that the simplicity of the plot is so captivating.
I was always so taken by the concepts and thoughts that they both reached on the complexities of love, relationships, faith and aging which they began discussing in Before sunrise and continued to explore through anecdotes and reflections in Before sunset.
Richard Linklaters character development fascinated me from the first time I watched ‘Dazed and confused’. He has a real gift for creating charming, relatable and truly three dimensional characters.
Celine and Jessie were further fleshed out with Delpy and Hawke on board as script writers for their characters in Before sunset and they resumed their roles again writing with Linklater for Before Midnight. What better way to continue a convincing portrayal and growth of characters than to consult with the actors themselves?
Spoiler alert: Stop reading here if you have yet to see Before Midnight.
The collaboration of the three is clearly effective as not one of the films has failed to convince audiences of the connection between Celine and Jessie and their longing, enduring respect and love for each other.
I was excited when I read the news of a third installment in the ‘Before’ series. But I was also a little cynical. Could they really come back after nine years with the same magic, and intrigue of the previous two films? Was there enough of a story left after the ‘does he or doesn’t he miss his flight?’ ending of Before Sunset?
I shouldn’t have doubted them for a second. From the beginning of Before midnight, it is clear that they have found a catalyst for the conflict in their relationship ten years on. Obviously, Jessie missed his flight that afternoon in Paris and since then he and Celine have been living together unmarried but with two beautiful 8 year old twins. Jessie’s son from his previous marriage is on his way home to the US after spending the summer with Jessie, Celine and the two girls in the Southern Peloponnese.
Jessie feels a heartbreaking guilt seeing his son Hank head through the airport security, knowing that he may not see him again for a few months at least. He realizes that he is missing out on some of the most important years of his son’s life and this continues to taunt him during the drive back to their accommodation. It is through Jessie’s innocent musings that he accidentally verbalizes one of his thoughts of perhaps moving the family to the US in order for him to be closer to Hank.
The proceeding few hours follow the family as they spend time with their hosts in a gorgeous Greek villa. We listen to another of Jessie’s proposed future book plots and the humorous response of the other male characters.
The film follows the directing style of Before sunset, with long shot dialogue scenes, specifically the scenes of the two characters sitting in the car as they drive home from the airport and the scene in which the two of them are walking through the country side to their hotel. This film does not need much more than strong characters and gorgeous scenery for it to be successfully engaging.
A gathering of generations around the dinner table that night is the setting for reflections on love and the sentiments of an older, middle aged and a younger couple as they discuss their experiences. This part of the film although entertaining felt as though it was plugged in to draw out sentiments, but by this point in the trilogy we know that the real magic occurs when Jessie and Celine are alone, engaged in conversations of their own.
The only gripe I had was the extent to which Celine’s neurosis was written into this film. We get a very brief hint of this part of her character in Before sunrise as she endearingly tells Jessie about her obsession over her last boyfriend and the ensuing story she wrote about a woman who murdered her ex boyfriend. There are only these brief glimpses into a possible character trait but at this point in her unveiling she remains a sweet, perceptive young female getting over a bad break up.
In Before sunset we see her unravel towards the end of the film as she describes the effect their one night has had on all her relationships since. Her vulnerability is exposed after almost 90 minutes of her; self professed ‘strong, independent woman’ talk. It is in before midnight however that the crux of their discussions involves for the first time their togetherness.
But in Before midnight, her relentless, irrational attacks on Jessie as they argue in their hotel room are far from endearing and I could hear the audience sighing in frustration each time she came back with another verbalized resentment. The argument which hinders their first ‘romantic’ night away from their kids in a very long time is full of deep seated resentments which are finally surfacing, and insecurities bound up inside feminist views. It is disturbing yet entertaining and the trio made sure to write in some witty moments to keep the audience smiling.
Yet the sadness at seeing these two friends in such a petty, relentless battle dismayed me, to the point of tears, even as they reconciled in their humorous, idiosyncratic manner. Even as the credits rolled and the lights brightened I struggled to keep back tears. The film leaves us yet again in a test of cynics and optimists. Do they stay together?
After the nature of the arguments of their evening it is difficult to imagine a couple overcoming the obstacles and reconciling through such tumult, but this is Jessie and Celine! If fans of these films have learned anything up to this point it is that these two characters operate on a level higher than a relationship and higher than a friendship. Before Midnight challenges its viewers to engage, understand and believe in the decades long commitment of our favourite on screen couple.
It is not a film for everyone and I stress that if the preceding Before sunrise and sunset have not reeled you in then watching Before midnight may read as a rather strange didactic drama. It is too exhausting elucidating the beauty of this film to the people so far who have said ‘oh I didn’t like it, too much arguing and talking’. Please don’t see this movie if your idea of romance comes from watching Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston in yet another of their countless, typecast roles.
The fact that Richard Linklater has been able to convincingly and dignifiedly represent the maturing of these characters over a series of years as they learn about themselves, each other and what it means to endure a relationship when real life sets in is a testimony to his own perceptive nature as a person. His wizardry of directing a dialogue heavy film is at its best in Before midnight.