Another nine years have passed…and all is not so well. Oh, don’t worry—“Before Midnight” is a superb film. It’s the central relationship that has seen its better days. And what could we have expected for Jesse(star and co-writer Ethan Hawke)and Celine(star and co-writer Julie Delpy) after almost a decade together as 41 year-old parents to adorable, blonde, twin little girls? Passion is easy…relationships are hard. Director and co-screenwriter Richard Linklater is acutely aware of this, so if you’re expecting another love-fest a la the first two installments…think again. Because if 1995’s “Before Sunrise” is all about the romance as our young lovers talk and walk through Vienna, and 2004’s “Before Sunset” focuses on the reunion of the thirty-something duo as they gab and stroll through the streets of Paris, then “Before Midnight” is steeped in the reality of a long-term relationship with children and careers and the unavoidable baggage of everything that comes along with all of that—much of the dialogue this time on the ancient trails of Peloponnese, Greece . And the movie nails it. Destined to be one of the very best films of 2013(its Metacritic rating already places it #1 among what’s been released these first six months), it just may be the fitting end to the 18-year journey we’ve experienced with these two wonderful characters. Don’t fret though—there’s plenty of wiggle room for a 2022 entry if the Linklater/Delpy/Hawke team decide to give it another go when Celine and Jesse hit 50. I hate to beg, but—please, please, PLEASE!!! Certain that I’m not alone.
The film opens with Jesse(a now weathered-looking Mr. Hawke)walking young son Henry(Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick)to his gate at a Greek airport, after what Henry will refer to as “the summer of his life” with his father’s new family and friends on the Greek peninsula. But it’s during this introductory conversation that we get some background for the nine years that we’ve missed. Jesse has had a messy divorce with Henry’s mother…and Mom is still bitter and very angry about being tossed aside. She maintains custody in Chicago, while her novelist ex-husband lives and writes in Paris. And Jesse makes clear that he misses “Hank” terribly, and will later express a desire to be closer to him for his teenage years. After Jesse gets Hank on the plane, he heads out to his idling car containing his partner Celine(the whip-smart and beautiful-as-ever Julie Delpy)and their sleeping eight year-old girls. They chat about parenthood on their scenic drive back to their summer getaway, lamenting their poor choices and the difficulties of raising children. Celine has also been offered what could be her “dream job” in Paris, but still expresses doubts and concerns. Jesse, on the other hand, bombards her with the news of his pondering a move back to the states. As summer guests of an elderly writer who admires Jesse’s work, it’ll be just a few scant weeks before the pair arrive back in Paris at a time of crucial life decisions. There is a wonderful outdoor dinner at the octogenarian author’s home, where Jesse and Celine eat and converse with doppelgängers of their younger and likely future selves. At one juncture we happen upon an all-male discussion about the passage and perception of time. And we witness an epic half hour, or so, argument that has to rank among the finest and most honest of its kind ever filmed. At the very least, it’s probably the longest. And it never fails to prod, entertain, horrify or depress in equal measure. I smell another Original Screenplay Oscar nomination already.
Will the entire audience be happy with the somewhat acerbic turn-of-events after the giddy highs of Parts 1 and 2? I doubt it. “Before Midnight” is a sobering reminder of the eventual dampening of that one-time passionate flame. We get a dose of some frank sexuality(talk and otherwise), and even some brave(not that there’s anything to be ashamed of—she looks great)nudity from Ms. Delpy. Does Jesse need to grow up? Are Celine’s needs being put on hold? People in their 40’s(like yours truly)will recognize and cringe during these conversations. They’re painful because they are true. It’s a relief to realize that almost no one is left unscathed. But it’s scary too…like it should be. When Celine informs Jesse that “he’s no Henry Miller”, it punched me in the gut. Miller has been an idol of mine for decades…apparently for Jesse as well. I theorized many months ago, well before most of us realized that “Before Midnight” was being “secretly” filmed, that Abbas Kiarostami had created an ersatz “Before, Part III” with his wondrous “Certified Copy” starring that other French goddess, Juliette Binoche. That soothsaying rings true, but the two works not only compliment each other very well—they also travel down some distinctly different avenues. “Before Midnight” is a perceptive and insightful gabfest—part of a cult triptych that has the distinction of being the “lowest grossing” trilogy in the history of motion pictures(according to Mr. Hawke). And that’s fine. It’s nice to be a member of this exclusive group. I’ve been asked more than once if you can enjoy “Before Midnight” without having seen the first two. And I guess to some extent you can—but there’s nothing like realizing the entire journey. So, don’t be lazy…queue up your Netflix now. The previous films were my Top Ten #1’s for each of their respective years. Will there be a three-peat? Time will tell. In the meantime, see this in theaters while you have the chance. It’s intelligent, adult filmmaking of the highest order. Grade: A