Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, why the hell do you make such an enchanting on-screen couple?! Here it is almost two decades after Richard Linklater directed Before Sunrise, the first film to introduce our hopeless lovers Jesse and Celine, and almost a full decade after we re-visited Jesse and Celine for a romantic French encounter in Before Sunset, yet Linklater is still finding a market for his latest story about Jesse and Celine – Before Midnight. You don’t see many romantic dramas being franchised these days, but Linklater has found something astonishingly special with his Before franchise.
After all the passion and turmoil has settled from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Linklater’s newest film meets Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) after spending some nine years together as a couple, raising their two beautiful daughters Ella (Jennifer Prior) and Nina (Charlotte Prior). We first catch up with only Jesse though who is saying goodbye to his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) before he flies home to Chicago, where Jesse’s ex-wife lives. Torn up about not being there for his son as he enters his high school era, a conversation begins with Celine about the possibility of moving to Chicago, but this is quickly pushed aside by his fiery lover. With a vacation in Greece about to begin, Jesse lets the argument go and focuses on brand new novel ideas while enjoying good company paired with proper relaxation. When six weeks passes though and our couple’s holiday nears an end, Jesse and Celine’s alone time turns into an analysis of their relationship, a discussion of love, and the revealing of deep-seeded fears/emotions which become a heightened point of debate – one that threatens to tear our destined lovers apart.
Much like Linklater’s first two Before films, Before Midnight has virtually no plot, as technically not much happens, yet is brimming with intellectual critique and debate on societal topics like technology, human existence, and then the obvious relationship drama that takes place between main characters Jesse and Celine. Actually, the talking never stops, as Linklater uses these brilliantly long takes of straight dialogue that are momentarily broken up by a character noticing some scenery which allows Linklater to make a well-placed cut. For the most part though, Before Midnight takes place in three main locations and over three very significant, thought-provoking exchanges.
Starting with a basic catch-up introduction, our first major conversation takes place in Jesse and Celine’s car, driving back from the airport to their vacation destination while Nina and Ella sleep. This is the light-hearted banter which re-establishes our fabled lovers as a successful couple, joking around and interacting with extreme comfort, but this is also the introduction of Jesse’s fatherly worries of leaving Hank without a real male role model during the most important of times. The thought of moving is brought up by Jesse, but as I said earlier, Celine is having none of it as she debates a major decision of her own – whether to take a high paying government job. Both points are brought up, both characters get their say, but the whole car ride is rather pleasant, stuffed full of cutesy little relationship jokes and moments of true hilarity from two extremely real personalities.
The second main conversation takes place during the last dinner of Jesse and Celine’s vacation, as they share a meal with the house owner (a writer friend who invited Jesse) and his female friend, the owner’s grandson and his girlfriend, and another couple who Jesse and Celine are friendly with. Again, this isn’t the harshest subject matter found in Before Midnight, but the topics of debate are scarily relevant and ever so juicy. No subject is off limits, as the group jokes about technology making writers obsolete, how the virtual world will ultimately take over sex, and dating in today’s current century with devices like Skype. Another main discussion exploits the idea of a relationship, and whether people should be living as one or coexisting as two separate bodies who respect each other. This is where Linklater’s script gets extremely deep and philosophical, trouncing romantic dramas which try to push the whole “21st century relationship” angle to no avail. Linklater outsmarts all these sad attempts at “independent love” by expressing different viewpoints from characters of all ages and situations, challenging one to redefine everything they may understand about preconceived notions with more conservative roots.
The third act of our epic saga is where Linklater kicks our hearts into overdrive though, starting with Jesse and Celine as they wander through stunning Greek landscapes towards a hotel room which has been booked for a secluded one-night getaway. What starts as fun and games quickly turns into an outpouring of frustrations, mis-conceptions, bottled emotions, and hard to stomach realizations that people struggle with through their everyday lives, all eating away at Jesse and Celine. While logic is ignored at times in favor of gripping dramatic tension, it’s hard not to be moved by two characters who are literally fighting a battle with love, trying to hurdle every obstacle be it a vengeful ex-wife, personal goals, or father time – but Linklater’s handling of the material yet again shows nothing but maturity, honesty, and understanding. Even though things may not be fairytale-esque, it doesn’t mean you aren’t living your very own, unique, personal fairytale romance.
For as breathtaking as Linklater’s script is (Hawke and Delpy actually have writing credits too), none of the raw, human emotion would have existed without perfect chemistry between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. While I’d expect the two actors to work well together after absolutely setting the screen on fire in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I didn’t expect them to still be THIS good. The connection between these two lovers feels incredibly real, their arguments are heated with a loving passion which actually stings when one hurts the other, their happier moments inspire smile-worthy joy, and their crazy, f#cked up relationship inspires nothing but hope for a sea full of hopeless romantics struggling to balance life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. While Hawke and Delpy run the emotional gamut from infatuated to enraged, each feeling is shown even stronger than the last – never releasing viewers from their intoxicating trance.
Before Midnight is an emotional rollercoaster of a romantic drama that marvelously captures so many fears and ideals today’s lovers hold on to, as Linklater thankfully treats his audience like adults who can actually process conceptual information without having a spoon jammed down their throats. It’s not easy to watch Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy traverse the rough waters of true love, but it’s damn near the most rewarding romantic watch you’ll find these days.
In all honesty, if Richard Linklater can make me enjoy a love story which contains nothing but two characters jabbering on the whole time about grandiose thoughts on defining a relationship, three times none the less, then he certainly deserves the goldest of stars from this critic.