Review by Pamela Zoslov
, Céline, the young woman played by Julie Delpy, tells Jesse, the young man she has met on a train in Europe, that her mother always regretted not pursuing a relationship with a certain young man she had loved. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), the realist to Céline's idealist, remarks that Céline mère would only have regretted it later – real life could never measure up to her fantasy.
Jesse's statement presages BEFORE MIDNIGHT, the third in Richard Linklater's romantic trilogy (after BEFORE SUNRISE and its 2004 follow-up, BEFORE SUNSET). The films are dialogue-heavy duets set in foreign locales, in which the two principals talk about philosophy, literature, religion, sex, and everything under the sun. Alongside their conversation – sometimes captivating, other times insufferable – the pair enact a tentative, growing intimacy. Strangers when they met – when Jesse impulsively talked the bright, pretty French Céline into getting off the train with him to spend a memorable day in Vienna -- they are by now a couple, having reunited in Paris in BEFORE SUNSET. Jesse, now a successful novelist, has divorced the wife he married in the interregnum and decamped to Paris to join Céline and raise the adorable Raphaelite twin daughters conceived during their reunion. The exotic locale in BEFORE MIDNIGHT is a Greek island where Jesse and Céline have spent the summer with friends and his teenage son, Hank, from a former marriage.
Eighteen years on, Hawke's face is deeply furrowed, and the Jesse character, unbearably smug in the earlier films, has matured somewhat, his concerns now those of a settled man at midlife. In the strong opening scene, Jesse says a wrenching goodbye to his son, who is leaving for his home in Chicago. Jesse's pain over his inability to be a force in his son's life is palpable. Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is more sanguine, saying his stay in Greece was “the best summer of my life,” mainly because he got to kiss a girl.
Jesse's regret about his long-distance parenting is but one issue bubbling under the surface of Jesse and Céline's seemingly beautiful life. Celine works for nonprofit environmental causes, and Jesse enjoys a certain literary fame for his trilogy of novels -- mirroring Linklater's movie trilogy -- largely based on the Jesse-Céline relationship. In a scene reminiscent of Woody Allen at his most boringly Eurocentric, the couple exchange breezy, marginally clever, slightly bawdy banter with their sophisticated, wine-drinking friends. Céline mockingly acts out the persona of a “bimbo,” the perfect submissive doormat she thinks Jesse might like. “If I didn't let him win at every game,” she tells the group, “I'd never have sex.”
Céline and Jesse converse, voluminously, endlessly, engaging in relentless self-examination. Celine, though still luminously beautiful, characterizes herself as a “fat and middle-aged mom losing her hair.” Jesse says, “I can't believe I'm 41.” During the course of their unceasing conversation over several locations, the themes grow darker. She's bored by his literary life and feels like a domestic slave, forever tending to the needs of the house and children. Things are said though unsaid: Celine hears Jesse's lament about his son as a demand that they move the family to Chicago, where she will be relegated to "babysitting" his son.
Their Greek friends gift them with a stay at an Athens hotel, complete with a “couples' massage.” Free of the presence of other people, the couple can engage in real intimacy – which in this film turns out not to be sex but a no-holds-barred argument. The movie is revealed as Linklater's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, as the couple, who are still unmarried, air every dirty garment in their laundry basket. Accusations fly, from the realistic to the absurd. I know you slept with that bookstore woman on your last book tour. Didn't you blow Lech Walesa at that international conference, or was it Gorbachev?
They fight about Jesse's ex-wife, his move to Paris, his pointless chats with fellow novelists (“Blah blah blah!”), his lack of support of her career. The light banter in the earlier scene is darkly amplified. Céline reveals her secret fear that men will “turn me into a submissive housewife” and accuses Jesse of being boring in bed. He calls her “fucking nuts” and “the mayor of Crazytown.” Is this where the story ends? “This is where people start breaking up” Céline warned ominously as the battle began. Or will they be able to access whatever magic initially drew them together? (This quality is not really definable; in the first film, the greasy-haired, cynical Jesse seemed like someone Céline should run from, and in fact, there were times during that never-ending talkfest when I wished he were the serial killer he resembled.)
Like the first two films, BEFORE SUNSET is beautifully photographed, and the screenplay, by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, is filled with incisive, well observed (if often annoying) dialogue, which the leads perform skillfully. (They certainly had a lot of dialogue to memorize.) The romantic idealism of the first film – something audiences either adored or loathed – has by this time mellowed into something more mature, and more recognizable as real life. 3 out of 4 stars.