Rarely do film trilogies work across all three films and yet Before Midnight, the follow up to 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset can certainly claim to be one that is a resounding success. Like the Toy Story trilogy or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, the Before franchise manages to constantly progress and develop both story and characters to keep you basking in the warmth of their presence.
The last time we saw Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) they were dancing in her Paris apartment with him supposed to be flying back to his wife and son in American. Nearly ten years on we find Jesse at a Greek airport bidding a pained farewell to his son before returning to the car to discover, as we always wanted, Céline waiting for him with their twin daughters asleep in the back. As they approach the end of a six-week holiday in a writer’s retreat, Jesse and Céline are given the night off from looking after the kids to have a romantic evening in a hotel room. But with Jesse feeling guilty about being absent from his son’s life, he and Céline find their lives are not as happy-ever-after as they once hoped and the realities might be taking their toll on their relationship.
Having witnessed Jesse and Céline first in their idealistic early-twenties and then their more confident thirties it is typically smart and perceptive of writer-director Richard Linklater to wait another ten years before re-visiting them in their forties. On the surface it seems they’ve got it all, the heart-warming romance, the beautiful kids, living a comfortable life with Jesse’s writing success while Céline continues to fight for the environment. But, as is the way with any real life non-Hollywood relationship, nothing is perfect.
Like its predecessors, Before Midnight plays out with long takes, languid conversations that cover a wide-range of ideas, emotions and issues all set against a beautiful backdrop of sun and stunning locations. It is to Linklater, Hawke and Delpy’s credit, all of whom contributed to the writing of the film, that even when these conversations delve into the pretentious they never lose sight of a natural ability to both acknowledge this and off-set it with a charm that is endlessly endearing.
But where Before Midnight truly thrives is in conveying the evolution of not just Céline and Jesse’s relationship over the years but also the perception they have of themselves and each other. Hawke and Delpy’s performances fit like your favourite pair of slippers, sliding effortlessly into place and bringing with them a vast ocean of individuality. Hawke’s Jesse is that typical forty-something male, reluctant to get into an argument but never one to shy away from a well place piece of passive-aggressive behaviour. Delpy on the other hand is still the fiery French temptress of the previous films but now brings with her a brilliantly accurate portrayal of a woman confident with how she looks but never afraid to fish for a compliment from her partner. At times her Céline comes across as irrational but this is part of what makes her so believable, she wants Jesse to engage with her on more than just a superficial level. She wants him to communicate with her the way he does when he’s with his writer friends, deeply immersed in intellectual discourse but unable to express how he really feels to Céline without sparking an argument. As ever, both Hawke and Delpy stop being the actors we’ve seen over the years and occupy their characters so perfectly you wonder if you’re not intruding on very private moments between them.
Honest and real, Before Midnight is a touching look at a relationship stripped bare of romantic Hollywood clichés. On this form you pray we’ll catch up with Céline and Jesse in another ten years and more than anything, hope they’re still together, for better or worse.