Raw, honest, tender, fearless, intimate, humorous, and heartbreaking, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight is more than just the best film of 2013 thus far. Along with its equally-as-daring predecessors – 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset – Midnight makes for one of the most unique and emotionally startling cinematic experiences I’ve ever been apart of. Entirely composed of slow-burning conversations, these films depict the evolution of a couple, irresistibly played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, following them as they slowly open up to one another and climaxing in moments of catharsis that will have you questioning and confronting your own thoughts on life, love, regrets, and dreams. Not even the world’s most cold-hearted man will be able to keep his emotional guard up and his vulnerabilities suppressed, especially during this third installment, easily the best and most meditatively gut-wrenching entry in the series. In other words, Before Midnight is damn perfect. It’s also unshakeable too.
Though fans of the series will be extra rewarded, newcomers shouldn’t fret, even without seeing the first two films (though you certainly should do so anyways) there is still much to chew on in Before Midnight. Here’s all you need to know: In 1995, Jesse (Hawke), a budding American novelist, and Celine (Delpy), a French environmental activist, met on a train to Vienna and started up a day-long conversation that slowly exposed their mutual attraction to one another – was this a chance encounter or the result of a higher fate? Nine years later, 2004 to be exact, Jesse, now married and with a son, has found success by turning his encounter with Celine into a worldwide bestseller; at a book tour in Paris, Celine purposely sets up a reunion between the two to see if sparks will still fly. Before Midnight takes place nine years later; Jesse and Celine are now married with beautiful twin girls, and during one of their last days vacationing in Greece, their hidden insecurities and desires – Jesse regrets being absent in his son’s life, Celine wants to take a government job in Paris, Jesse debates moving to Chicago to be closer to his former family, Celine despises this very idea – boil to the surface and clash.
It’s a short and simple concept but one that is exhaustibly powerful. Like the first two, Midnight only has about 8-10 different scenes, but each one adds an unnerving weight to the previous and gives the next an on-edge sense of unpredictability. Sound like life? That’s because it is. What Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have accomplished here goes beyond film – Midnight is so mimetic it’s scary, beautiful, tragic, and uplifting, sometimes all at once. After Jesse drops his son at the airport, the film begins with an outstanding and unbroken 15 minute scene depicting Jesse and Celine’s drive back to their vacation home; it’s here where newcomers of the series will fall hard for the couple and where long-time fans will fall back in love. As played by Hawke, Jesse is still humble and immaturely sweet, and Delpy, in an awards-worthy performance, is still as gorgeous and commanding as she was 18 years ago; her Celine is wise, graceful, sexy, and honest, never afraid to spit out the truth and lay her insecurities out on an open canvas.
Sharing screenwriting credit with Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have an improvisational banter that is beyond charming, it’s flat out seductive. These two have created a couple that looks and feels real, so much so that you may see your own parents in Hawke and Delpy, an added bonus that gives the film a haunting layer of realism. With each passing moment, the screenplay, performances, and direction grow and grow; during a standout, nearly 20-minute long dinner, Linklater sits three couples down at the table and lets their generational differences spar – it’s a romantic debate for the ages. By using long, unabridged shots, Linklater allows the performances to settle in and, like a magician, he’s able to blur the line between film and reality, creating a docu-drama tone that gives the film it’s real power. Later, during Jesse and Celine’s long walk from their vacation home to a hotel where they can finally get one night alone, the two reminisce on their history and their first encounter and Linklater, spinning the camera around his two characters, creates a fever dream of nostalgia. Is love nothing but dream? It’s something you must ask yourself during moments like these. Then comes the climax – the hotel scene where Jesse and Celine can’t escape their festering regrets, doubts, and problems – a moment that combines romance, drama, and comedy so naturally that it almost plays out like a real life thriller. Fans have spent 18 years figuring out who Jesse and Celine are and this climax is the emotional peak of the entire “Before…” trilogy. It’s a master class moment.
All of this leads to the film’s real power player: time. It’s a theme Linklater loves to dissect; from the “Before…” movies to Dazed and Confused, Bernie, The School of Rock, and more, Linklater’s movies dissect characters who are constantly pressured under time constraints. In Sunset and Sunrise, the impending departure of Hawke’s character always gave Jesse and Celine but a day to figure things out, in Midnight things are much different – this time it isn’t a train ticket keeping Jesse and Celine apart, it’s old age, the melancholy realization that time is short and our lives are nothing but aging memories. Can you keep love alive? Can love survive time? How long before two people on a train become lovers and then fall apart? Like a classic Shelley or Wordsworth poem, Before Midnight sneaks up and floors you with psychological questionings that are hard to bury. At 20, this film acts like a cautionary tale to someone who has yet to expierence the love portrayed on screen; I imagine my parents will react to it much differently, as will every single viewer. How much you have loved effects how you see love and Linklater uses that notion to uncover your own romantic desires, triumphs, and failures. I’m only skimming the surface here too, Before Midnight packs surprises only you can figure out yourself. It’s as personal as filmmaking gets.
Screw The Notebook, Before Midnight caps off the greatest cinematic romance of our time and one of the best romances ever put on screen, right up there with Gone With The Wind’s Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler. As a whole, the “Before…” films stand as one of the all time great movie trilogies and some of the most unique pieces of art you’re bound to come across. I simply adore these movies and Midnight is an outstanding conclusion (….unless we get the chance to check in with Celine and Jesse nine years later). The film’s Best Picture chances are probably slim to none but the Academy should take note, a screenplay this riveting and Delpy’s tour-de-force performance demand recognition.
See it and see it again. Easily the year’s best as of May.
Review by Zack Sharf