Directed by Richard Linklater
Before Midnight is the third film of the “Before” trilogy. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train to Vienna in 1994. As strangers they spend the night talking about life and falling in love. In 2003 they meet again for the first time, now in Paris. They are in their low thirties, a little less dreamy and romantic than they were before, but their conversation still circles their hope for the future. After all, they are still getting to know each other and falling in love.
In this most recent film, another nine years after Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine are a couple, and together they have two twin daughters. But having made a life together, and dealing with the compromises that entails, their conversation is less about wide-eyed wonder about the world and more about where they’re at right now. Ethan Hawke has said about the trilogy that Before Sunrise was about what might be, Before Sunset was about what could be, and Before Midnight is about what is.
So maybe the arc is about coming back down to earth. When you’re young, you dream big, and as you get older, life happens. Some of those dreams persist, of course, as Jesse is a successful novelist, Celine is contemplating accepting her dream job offer, they have two beautiful twins, and they’re spending the summer on the Greek coast.
On the surface it all looks so picturesque. Because this is a movie, one built up by its two predecessors, there is so much weight added to every conversation, every moment. The film opens with a shot of two pairs of feet on the ground, one pair belonging to Jesse and the second to his son (from a previous marriage), Hank. Director Richard Linklater must know that the audience expects to see Jesse and Celine walking together. This is meant to be a surprise, and he quickly reorients us to the present moment.
Jesse drops Hank off at the airport, something he must do at the end of every summer, so Hank can go back to America to live with his mother. Then Jesse and Celine drive back home for the night, and we get a long conversation that tells us how they interact, most likely, in a day to day setting. Their conversation isn’t particularly exciting, but because the audience knows these people and is looking to fill in the blanks of the 9 years since the last film, everything they say is so much more meaningful than they realize.
Before Midnight works to strip the magic out of a relationship and particularly a movie relationship. Jesse and Celine should be like Romeo and Juliet or Rick and Ilsa. There is so much weight to their relationship because, again, this is a movie, and the movie is about them. That on its own creates meaning.
But as the night goes on, we see just how real they are. There are three long segments of conversation between Jesse and Celine. The first, in the car ride to the large house where they’ve stayed the last six weeks, sets up their new normal. We see how they talk about career, about each other, about their kids, etc.
In the second, during a long walk to the water in the late afternoon, they begin to discuss ideas reminiscent of the conversations in Sunrise and Sunset, almost as if to assure the audience that these characters are still the same ones from the first two films.
And finally, at night in a hotel room, they share a nasty fight that has been bubbling to the surface throughout the story, even if they didn’t realize it. The fight is amazing. It’s both so dramatic, so damaging, but it feels so real and honest. They fight because they are human, and they have struggles, concerns, fears and egos. This isn’t the dark night of the soul moment in a Hollywood movie, where the conflict comes from outside of the characters, it’s an honest fight, showing that people aren’t always happy just because you think they should be.
So the film, if I were to break it down to its core, is about telling the audience that Jesse and Celine’s relationship isn’t as magical as we believe, and about Jesse and Celine learning that their relationship is more magical than they realize. As I mentioned before, when the film begins, Jesse and Celine, to us, are magic. But to each other there’s nothing magical going on. That’s what happens as you stay together, though. The passion dies down and is replaced by a new form of comfort, ideally.
At one point in the first half of the film, at a dinner conversation, a young woman, Anna (Ariane Labed), tells Jesse and Celine how romantic their story is. And Jesse knows it too, or he did. He wrote two novels about it, just as Linklater had made two films about this story, itself said to be inspired by his own similar encounter with a woman as a younger man. When Anna says this, Celine’s response is to deny the romance and to say that the book idealized much of what really happened.
So she can’t see the magic anymore, and maybe Jesse, despite being the more romantic of the two, can’t either. In their long argument that ends the film, we see just why the magic might have evaporated. Their argument is so specific, so detailed, and like in any good conflict, both sides have a point.
It seems unnecessary to get into the specifics of their debate, and the point of the story is not who’s right or wrong, but just that this is real. The people are real, the conflict is real, and ultimately they each have to accept that this is their life, for better or worse, and frankly it’s mostly for the better.
I’m not sure what else to say about this movie, but I feel like there is a lot to focus on. The night we see here is by no means a typical night for Jesse and Celine. It’s the end of a long summer, they’re without the kids for the night, and Jesse has just had to say goodbye to his son for a few months. As Celine points out, Jesse looks to start a fight every year when he must say goodbye to his son.
People are imperfect and fragile, but they are more often than not able to put themselves together. The first two films of this series feel like they’re about building, and this feels like rebuilding. In Sunrise and Sunset, both characters have such amazing aspirations for themselves and for the world. Though they observe certain imperfect details about each other, the focus is not on themselves but rather the world around them. It’s like they are blank canvases starting to be filled.
In Sunset, if we keep the canvas metaphor, they are half-completed. There is a trajectory to the colors and the brush strokes, so they have an idea of where they’re headed, but it’s not too late to course correct (in terms of Jesse’s first marriage). In that film their conversation doesn’t just cover the world but also each other and themselves. They are already starting to reflect back on what they’ve done and the patterns that would seem to dictate where they are headed.
In Before Midnight, they are just about completed, their canvas completely filled in, and now they have to accept that these are the colors and brush strokes that make up who they are. And as we see, they take issue with several aspects of their canvas. But by the end, as Jesse points out through his time-traveler analogy, itself a time-traveling callback to Sunrise, their canvas hasn’t been completely filled in yet. They are still young.
It’s amazing to think that their characters are only 41 in this movie. In some ways it feels like the end, what with this being the third film in a trilogy and all, and they feel much older than 41. That’s because we have been able to identify with their youth more than them as individuals. In Boyhood, for example, Ethan Hawke’s character begins with two young children, not much far apart in age than his kids in this film, and the story goes on for another 12 years.
It’s the framing device that makes Jesse and Celine feel old, reflecting how they might see themselves. Not every person is as dreamy and future-oriented as Jesse and Celine (particularly Jesse). This story is about perception, within the context of the trilogy, but also in a vacuum. Jesse and Celine are old because they are the oldest we have ever seen them. Celine even makes such a remark to Jesse, about him being the oldest man she has ever slept with.
In an earlier conversation with two friends, Jesse talks about his upcoming novel ideas (like he did at the start of Before Sunset), and the theme of all of his ideas is perception. One person sees the world this way and the other one sees it another way. Anna thinks Jesse and Celine’s story is romantic, but Celine doesn’t.
Jesse ultimately helps put an end to their argument by playing into the idea of perception. He pretends to have received a letter from an 82 year old Celine (itself perhaps an allusion to her seeing her own life as the dream of an elderly woman), which tells 41 year old Celine that they are young, and these will be the best years of their lives. He tries to reorient the way she sees each other and her own life.
The film does the same thing. This feels like the end, but by the actual end it feels like the beginning. To quote a different Rick, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”