Before Midnight continues the story of Jesse and Céline nine years after the events of Before Sunset, they are now a couple with twin daughters spending the final day of a summer holiday in Greece.
For the first time after the first two films, in Before Midnight we finally get to see Jesse and Celine actually in a relationship. Ethan Hawke in an interview on KCRW’s The Treatment recalled a behind-the-scenes story of how the steadi-cam operator got upset shooting a scene in Before Midnight where Jesse gazes upon a young girl in a bikini, stating that Jesse would never do that to Celine. That is key. We feel like we know Jesse and Celine deeply. These characters mean something to us, whether we value how real they seem or romanticize their relationship from the last two films.
I’ll give you an example. From having watched Jesse and Celine converse for two films now, I love that I am familiar with all their little ticks and peccadilloes. I know Celine hides her face with her long hair when she’s uncomfortable and that she hates it when Jesse interrupts her romantic fancies with realism. I know Jesse likes getting his money’s worth and often changes the subject when he doesn’t want to talk about something. These characters mean something to us, whether we value how real they seem or romanticize their would-be relationship from the last two films. The things they do and say have a more profound effect on us as an audience. Richard Linklater understands this and uses it to his advantage.
Never does it feel like Hawke or Delphy are acting. They just are these characters. I don’t know if it’s because they’re the writers of their own dialogue, their mutual camaraderie with each other and director Richard Linklater or all of the above. There’s a magic that’s still present after all these years. I use the word “magic” because I can’t pinpoint its mechanics. But when Jesse and Celine get talking, it feels like it’s happening right before me.
The conversations are the spectacle. On the surface, the characters are just telling interesting stories or giving their 2 cents on a given topic, but the conversations are designed with multiple arcs, callbacks and continually suggest and build character. The group dinner scene is a lot of fun as we see several characters converse with Jesse and Celine for the first time. It was a change in format and I found myself wanting to chime in and give my two cents on various topics. The climatic hotel scene is an impressive dialogue set piece, and it accurately captures how couples fight. They’re both fighting to stop themselves from having the last word, but can’t help saying it anyway.
If you haven’t seen the first two, I’d suggest go seeing them first. Before Midnight does work as a standalone film, but watching it standalone will cut off the journey of these two characters. By default, this third film would just mean less. This is a good third movie. I cannot help but see all three films as one story now. I almost don’t want to see a fourth film.
Unlike a lot of love stories where it concentrates on the pursuit of love, Before Midnight refreshingly focuses on the means to sustaining a relationship. It’s never tonally bitter or cynical. The film celebrates love by just presenting the simple truth, which includes the full spectrum of the sour, bitter and sweet. I love that Richard Linklater is using these iconic characters to say something profound about love, relationships and life in your forties. It’s a risky move considering where the second film left off, but he accomplished it beautifully and delivered a earnest message. I was scared, touched and at the end I felt like I saw two old friends and learned something.