Movies that explore the lifespan of real or fictional characters or of a relationship over several years, even decades, are rare. I can only think of three: Michael Apted’s “Up” series which revisited the lives of fourteen British children every seven years beginning in 1964 when they were seven-years old (the most recent entry is 2012’s “56 Up”); François Truffaut’s five-film Antoine Doinel cycle which traced the misadventures of its title character from childhood (1959’s “The 400 Blows”) through adulthood, marriage and divorce (1979’s “Love on the Run”); and Richard Linklater’s, Julie Delpy’s and Ethan Hawke’s “Before” trilogy.
In “Before Sunrise” (1995), American tourist and writer wannabe Jesse (Hawke) meets French traveler Céline (Delpy) on a train in Europe and they both decide to get off in Vienna, where they spend the night walking and talking, the camera following them in long, fluid takes, establishing the trilogy’s visual and aural signatures. Nine years later, in “Before Sunset” (2004), Jesse flies to Paris to present his first novel, based on the events in “Before Sunrise.” Céline shows up at the book reading and they spend the whole movie catching up, sharing their deepest frustrations and longings. The film ends with Jesse deliberately missing his flight back to Chicago, where his wife and son are waiting, to spend the night and possibly the rest of his life with Céline.
“Before Midnight” takes this relationship to the inevitable next step: parents of twin girls, they are now a couple full of regrets and even a tad resentful of each other. Parenthood has replaced those long walks and talks; their sex life is virtually nonexistent. The Jesse and Céline we saw in the first two films are still there, buried underneath the surface, their give and take now part of their daily routine. By the end, those cracks we saw earlier in the film have opened wide and what was once left unsaid comes boiling to the surface.
“Before Midnight” opens at a Greek airport where Jesse is seeing his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) off. Hank is going back home to Chicago after having spent the summer with Jesse, Céline and his stepsisters; Jesse wants to squeeze every minute he has left with him. Céline is waiting outside in the car with the twins and as they drive back to the friend’s villa where they’ve been staying, the first signs that there might be trouble in paradise appear: Céline talks about a potential new job back in France after an environmental project is turned down by the government and Jesse hints that he would like to return to Chicago to spend more time with his son. “Jesse, I am not moving to Chicago,” she cuts him short as he retreats back to his natural passive-aggressiveness.
Back at the villa, they are confronted with three different potential aspects of their own relationship as they share an afternoon supper with their hosts and neighbors: a deep-in-love teenage couple, a playful middle-aged Greek couple, and the more pragmatic owners of the villa. Céline and Jesse react to these three different versions of what their love once was, could have been and may end up being, by acerbically digging at each other in front of their friends.
Their friends have booked a hotel room for the evening so that Céline and Jesse can have an intimate night together away from their children. But the room soon becomes a battleground for both of them.
Delpy and Hawke co-wrote the scripts with Linklater (although Kim Krizan is credited alongside Linklater for “Before Sunrise,” both actors rewrote the script after being cast). The film is so meticulously rehearsed and shot that you feel you are eavesdropping on a conversation. The trio has a fine ear for the shifts and turns a conversation can take, for its rhythms. For how a friendly conversation, even a discussion about philosophy, can turn sour in an instant thanks to that one word or expression; for how we can sometimes be tone deaf to what our better half is saying; and how, after so many years of companionship, we can outguess each other, so familiar are we with our significant other’s behavior. At one point Céline reproaches Jesse for playing the part of the rational one in the relationship, completely disarming him, taking away the one strategy he has used so well over the years to defuse any argument.
Still, after all is said and done, and as we approach the end of this journey, we can’t help but acknowledge that Jesse and Céline were meant for each other and this is just another hurdle they must overcome very much like another couple does at any point in a relationship. Words hurt, yes they do; it’s how you later use them to heal whatever wound you may have opened that matters.
And, oh what beautiful words. For while the “Before” trilogy celebrates romance, warts and all, it also celebrates the art of conversation in this social media age. Here’s dialogue that Woody Allen would envy, lines that the many actors who have worked with him would kill for the opportunity to say. Dialogue that crackles and pops, that feels real, alive. As alive as Jesse and Céline and the many characters they have encountered on their journey.