Oh, how time has a way of changing things. Thankfully for Richard Linklater and everyone else involved in what have now become an ethereal Jesse & Celine trilogy, the perennial impact of this story has aged like a fine wine. Longtime fans and followers of this series recall the fateful chance meeting back in the original 1994 film, Before Sunrise. The shots of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy conversing and strolling through Vienna have become symbols of blooming romance, and their tearful departure suggests a brighter future to come. If Before Sunrise introduced this glimmer of hope for the future, however, Before Sunset grounded us back to reality, as their reunion is accompanied by a decade of experience and the realization that not all wishes can be fulfilled. Before Midnight continues this notion, and kicks it up a notch – this time, shining a light on the potential end for this ever-aging romance.
Technically speaking, this film contains every element that made its two predecessors so amazing. The two wonderful leads almost need no mention at all. Delpy and Hawke’s dynamic as a couple is completely true-to-life, making this visage of their downfall all the more heartbreaking. Now, while the performances of the main cast – and the supporting cast, may I add – are all truly spectacular, I must give my highest regards to Julie Delpy, who really presents her gradual disillusionment with such a realistic charm, taking reins at nearly every one of her scenes.
The cinematography is another plus. While the previous two films were beautifully captured by Lee Daniels, Before Midnight‘s DP Christos Voudouris provides a wealthy substitute. The long takes continue to capture the essential realism of every scene, making each moment between the two individuals flow into the other absolutely seamlessly. Moreover, we get the lovely scenery of Greece, its transcendence and isolation mirroring the alienation that permeates this otherwise lovely atmosphere.
Finally, it may not need to be mentioned that Linklater is truly a master at dialogue. The conversation in Sunrise, Sunset, and now Midnight are brilliantly long-winded and sprawling. His skill at making lengthy existential dialogue fascinating – an aspect that was also especially replete in Waking Life and his early Slacker – is truly remarkable. Here, every piece of major conversation is injected with a sheer sense of biting wit, often dwelling on dark humor. Nonetheless, the moments shared with our two leads are not uncommonly rife with an underlying layer of spite and dissonance, a nearly inevitable component from a decade of turmoiled affairs.
Before Midnight more than adequately grants us a fair representation of a long-term relationship that may not be as delightful as the external picture suggests. This is the first of the films where we can truly see the age on the characters’ physical selves; hair is noticeably thinning, bodies breaking down, wrinkles more noticeable. The inevitability of the passing of time is accompanied by many harsh setbacks and reasons to deny naive optimism, something that is truly represented here. Brief glimmers of the new, young couple from eighteen years ago often pop up now and again, providing hope for their fate that seems particularly dismal. However, some problems in relationships just cannot be completely fixed, and the hopelessness that comes with the issue is nearly unbearable. The lengthy hotel room scene in the film’s final third progresses very delicately and accurately represents this trauma, daring to ask the dreaded question: How do you know when you truly stop loving someone? Moreover, what means must you take of this realization?
My main concern was that the events of this film would contradict the brilliant open ending of Before Sunset, which was both uncertain, yet optimistic. Up until now, this was my favorite of the series, progressing realistically from the budding romance of the initial film. However, I can now confidently state that Before Midnight is much more realistic and humane than its predecessors – which are both still bloody brilliant, by the way. The events of Midnight are really the one logical follow-up to a film like Sunset, avoiding the happily-ever-after theme that permeates many mainstream romance films. In this sense, it avoids giving the audience exactly what they want – or, rather, it avoids answering questions that may still be burning once the credits roll. For this is the uncertainty of life, something that is gracefully projected from this one-in-a-century series of films. Relationships often go dim, and Before Midnight suggests that there is more to live for in times like these. In times like these, such glimmers may or may not be worth living for; the answer lies in how one musters through the pain and sorrow to grasp the diamond in the rough.