Warning: This review contains spoilers about all three films in the series.
It’s an easy observation to make in today’s cinematic landscape that most movie trilogies consist of high-end, big-budget summer blockbusters whose main goal is to pad the pockets of major studios. This is nothing new. But it’s because of this trend that we should celebrate the wonderfully timed summer release of an entry into a completely different kind of trilogy: Richard Linklater’s beautiful, intimate, poignant Before Midnight, the latest installment in the Before series.
The film takes place nearly 20 years since young American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French feminist Celine (Julie Delpy) met on a train in Vienna and turned an impromptu day together in Vienna into a deeply romantic encounter in Before Sunrise, and nine years since their quick second encounter in Paris in Before Sunset. The characters' evolution over these two films molded from romantic and idealistic (especially in the case of Jesse) to a more grounded, realist and, naturally, more pessimistic view of the world and love.
However, the end of Before Sunset gave a window of opportunity as Jesse seriously contemplated missing his flight home and staying in Paris to spend time with Celine instead of going straight back to his loveless marriage. That film leaves us in a state of unknown with the big question unanswered. Right at the start Before Midnight gives us the answer, but its ambitions become so high and so different than anything encountered in the other films that the answer almost becomes a moot point. Instead it’s a jumping off point for one of the most honest looks at modern relationships ever made.
Jesse and Celine are happily together. Well, they’re together. Jesse did miss his plane and now he must deal with an ex-wife that hates him and a son he only sees sporadically. He and Celine live in France with their two twin girls, but he can’t help but want to be closer to Hank, his teenage son, who's thousands of miles away in Chicago. On the flipside, Celine is contemplating accepting a lucrative job offer in France. These conflicting wants set the stage. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, who all collaborated on this script just as they did with Before Sunset, get all of this out of the way in the film’s first two conversations, which make up its breathtaking opening 20 minutes.
By the time it’s over you find yourself back in the groove of the Before films. You experience things in, or close to, real time (each film takes place in a span of less than 24 hours), and that Jesse and Celine have an unending arsenal of intelligent and entertaining dialogue feels both too good to be true and undeniably honest. This time around, though, instead of centering on philosophical rumblings and existential ideas like in the previous films, they are having a much more perfunctory conversation about their relationship. Right from the start you realize where these characters are in their lives. They have no time to talk about deep thinkers; instead they have to figure out if their daughters will need a snack in an hour.
We discover that they are at the tail end of a six-week vacation in the countryside Greece where Jesse was invited to have a getaway with fellow writers. And it’s in these moments where Linklater lets his work behind the camera finally show up. He has an array of beautiful, painting-like nature all around and he makes sure to get as much in the frame as possible. In the first films he was more or less stuck in a town, in Before Midnight he doesn’t have those visual restrictions - and it shows.
The vacation has been heaven for Jesse, but hell for Celine. He’s been talking with his friends while she’s been cooking and taking care of the girls. And they haven’t had a minute alone. Their friends decided to get them a hotel room in the nearby town so they can have a night alone together. After much deliberation they oblige the offer. It’s in the following, final two scenes, which make up the film’s back half, where Before Midnight leaves its predecessors behind and soars to heights I never thought the series capable of achieving. Telling you the set-up makes sense because these films are built on set-ups; telling you the details of these scenes feels wrong because that’s where everything in the film lies; its mind, its heart, its soul.
I can tell you that those scenes, and the film as a whole, don't shy away from the hard realities of modern relationships. Instead Before Midnight lingers in those emotional truths most films don’t even want to acknowledge. It counters this while simultaneously being full of humor and joy as well. The combination makes it an emotionally complex and fully satisfying work of art.
If this is the last time Linklater, Hawke and Delpy let us visit with Jesse and Celine, that would be fine. If they have another chapter to add, I wouldn’t have a problem with that either. Like the two other films you do and don’t get a sense of closure by the end of Before Midnight and that is, in some part, what’s so great about it. While films in Hollywood's big-budget trilogies remain open-ended to leave a possibility for another entry, Before Midnight does so because it’s just being true to itself. It’s the perfect antithesis to the barrage of loud noises and unnecessary sequels that flood theaters from May to July. It’s also the best film so far this year.
RJ is a programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse. Before Midnight is the next title in the Drafthouse Recommends series.