Up until now there has always been an unattainable element of romantic fantasy that flowed throughout Richard Linklater’s Before series. Although I got swept away in following the budding romance between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) in 1995’s Before Sunrise, there was a part of the seventeen year-old version of myself that felt “this could only happen in the movies.” The idea of meeting that special someone by chance on the train and spending one gloriously romantic day, in Europe of all places, seemed like an unattainable dream. Several years later, when the 2004 sequel Before Sunset was released, I found myself back in the comfortably romantic world of the pair. They were both a little older, but still as engaging and interesting as the first time I encountered them on screen. However, there was still a small element of Jesse and Céline’s beautiful relationship that still felt a bit inaccessible in the “real world.”
While it may have taken 18 years, Linklater’s latest film, Before Midnight, finally hit home in the most unexpected way. Now much older myself, I am in a place in my life where the lives of Céline and Jesse are no longer the impossible dream. In fact the reality is, aside from the exotic location of the film’s setting, I am living many of their experiences right now. Jesse and Céline no longer reside in that world where you can just drop everything for the chance of finding that one true love. The real world has crashed in on them and they must now learn how to survive amongst the demands of having a family, juggling careers, and trying to remain true to their individual passions.
Listening to many of the conversations that take place in the film, including a few of the arguments, I could not help but think that Linklater had secretly bugged my house and the houses of my friends. Of course the truth is the issues that Jesse and Céline encounter over the duration of the film are common in all relationships. At age 41, they are not the same people they were at 23. For most, with age comes responsibilities that supersede many of the romantic notions they once held in such high regard. They are at the point in their relationship where they must finally open their eyes and take a good long look at their partner flaws and all.
In Before Midnight we find Jesse and Céline on vacation in Greece with their twin daughters and Jesse’s son Hank, who lives with Jesse’s ex-wife in Chicago. After sending Hank back home to his mother, Jesse finds himself conflicted as to where he should be. Not wanting to miss the best years of Hank’s life, Jesse has a desire to move the family to Chicago so they can be closer to Hank. Working as a novelist, Jesse views this as the perfect solution to keeping both facets of his family life intact. This does not sit well with Céline who has no desire to leave their home in Paris, especially since she has just accepted an offer that would have her working in her “dream job.” Over the course of the day the couple converse on a range of topics covering everything from life, love, gender roles and their concerns for the future of their relationship.
Similar to the previous two films, the strength of Before Midnight is found in the character’s words rather than their actions. Aside from the beautiful Greek scenery, it is the intellectual conversations that are the most delicious part of the film. Linklater, who co-wrote the script with Delpy and Hawke, is very astute in his characterization of the desires and expectations that both males and females have in relationships. When Jesse and Céline’s discussion turns into an argument about who does more work on a daily basis; it is a conversation that many will identify with, or have had themselves, on more than one occasion. Céline argues that since females are maternal by nature so they end up not only doing more around the house, but also give up on their hopes and dreams more often than men. She chastises Jesse for the fact that he spends so much time having philosophical discussions, and pursing his passion for writing, instead of helping more with the kids.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the film is that so few of the conversations are defined in black and white. While Céline may complain about the sacrifices she makes for the family, Linklater ensures to point out that Jesse has given up a lot as well for Céline and the girls. Despite appearing that he is yet another man who only takes care of himself rather than taking care of others, Jesse frequently provides reminders of how attentive he has been throughout their marriage. While no relationship is perfect, Before Midnight provides an equally weighted look at the good and bad that is within each character.
What I truly loved about this film was the realistic outlook that many of the supporting characters have about life and love. The film shows that it is not important to focus on what was, or what we perceive things to be, but what is happening now. As one character points out, our time in life is short and we are basically passing through. We may only be important to some, but it is pertinent that we find someone to feel safe and complete with while we are here. The romanticized notion of love is fleeting, but true love learns to grow and evolve until our last breath leaves us. It is this beautiful, and grounded, view on love and life that makes Before Midnight one of the best films this year. It is a film, like its predecessors, that I look forward to revisiting on numerous occasions.