6/20/2013 - The young lovers who wandered around mid-1990s Vienna and reunited in mid ‘00s Paris are now a middle-aged couple with kids in Before Midnight, the third Richard Linklater movie about Jesse and Celine.
Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a writer who turned his fateful meeting with Celine (Julie Delpy) into a novel, is now the somewhat successful author of three books and part-time professor at an American college in Paris. He and Celine are in the final days of a vacation in the Peloponnese with their twin daughters and Jesse’s son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), from his previous marriage. Specifically, from the marriage that broke up when he reconnected with Celine in Paris some nine years ago. The movie begins as Jesse is saying goodbye to Hank, who is going back to Chicago, where he lives with his mom, for the school year. Saying goodbye to Hank, Jesse descends into a sadness funk — he misses his kid and can’t really find a way to fix that problem. At the same time, Celine is pondering a new job opportunity. In this state of emotional upheaval, Jesse and Celine leave their daughters with friends at the house where they’ve been staying and walk into town to enjoy a night alone at a hotel.
And that’s it.
The movie, the “what happens,” happens in about three segments: a conversation Jesse and Celine have in the car on the way home from the airport, a conversation they have at dinner with friends (about, generally, the nature of romance and long-time relationships) and then a conversation that starts as they walk to the hotel and continues into the hotel room where, mixed in with some making out, it curdles into fighting. That last segment is the bulk of the movie — walking and talking and having the kind of conversation that is a mix of flirtation and fighting. Eventually, the kind of playful fighting turns into actual fighting, although generally the fighting is not about what the fight is actually about. (Celine speechifies about female oppression but the real issue is the unsolvable problem of Jesse wishing he could live with Hank but also calling Paris home with Celine and the girls.)
And if you’re married, you’re probably thinking “yep, like that.”
I am in an odd position, generationally speaking, in that I never saw the first two movies. Call it Reality Bites fatigue or something but I could never bring myself, back in 1995, to see Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, but particularly Ethan Hawke, romantically banter for a whole movie. So when Before Sunset came out nine years later, I didn’t particularly care to see that either. I’m kind of glad I never bothered. Because I don’t really care about the romantic backstory of Jesse and Celine. Sure, meeting on a train, love that smolders for nine years, all that stuff is very cinematic. But a middle-aged couple trying to make emotional sense of their life is so much rarer a thing to see in a movie, at least the kind of movie that winds up in mainstream cineplexes. And, while this is probably also as much about me and the age I am now as the movie itself, I really loved seeing this couple fight about real things and nonsense things and just sort of be uneasily in love together. Somehow, the movie perfectly captures that thing where two people can be in love but also irritating each other and also scared together. It’s an impressive blend of writing (by Linklater but also Hawke and Delpy, who all three share a screenplay credit) and acting that really makes this all come alive.
In particular, Delpy really shines. While still being, yes, a beautiful French actress, she is able to capture something like believable middle age. She does not look perfect; there is a harried quality to her facial expressions and even to her not-entirely-flattering dress. I remember thinking something similar in the recent 2 Days in New York, where, while still being a beauty, she has a realness you don’t see with American actresses of a similar age. Rather than making her look flawless, the movie lets Delpy be flawlessly believable. B+
Rated R for sexual content/nudity and for language. Directed by Richard Linklater and written by Linklater & Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight is an hour and 38 minutes long and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.