Before Midnight Review [SXSW 2013]
Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight is the third film in the series, acting as a follow-up to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in which Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) spend another day in deep conversation and life musings. If you haven’t watched the first two films in this series, you should know that they are films almost entirely made up of conversations between the main characters, Celine and Jesse.
In Before Sunrise, audiences are treated to the first chance meeting of a young man and woman in Europe who spend a day getting to know each other and falling in love. The second film, Before Sunset, sees a decade-older Celine and Jesse getting re-acquainted and remembering old love. In this installment, it has been almost 20 years since Celine and Jesse have first met. They have grown older and now have two children together.
The film opens up in Greece, where the couple and their little girls have been vacationing. Jesse’s character is putting his son (through a former marriage) onto a plane back to the States. The rest of the day (until Midnight) is spent in verbal reminisces, philosophical musings, and tense personal and relationship introspection between Jesse and Celine.
Like other indie dramas, there is not much going on plot-wise. Unlike other insipid dramas though, Linkater doesn’t allow Before Midnight to become mired in its own pretentions. He keeps it not only compelling through dynamic turns of conversation and smart dialogue, but he also uses a brilliant natural timing to keep the dialogue-driven scenes from becoming tedious.
At first, I didn’t see how I could possibly sit through Before Midnight without feeling boredom at some point. When it comes to camera work, the film isn’t anything spectacular. For the most part, it’s long, continuous head-on shots of Celine and Jesse talking. We see them sitting in the car (this was a 20 minute shot broken only by a short pan to the countryside), walking through the countryside and “trapped” together in a hotel room (in an amazing 30-plus minute scene). As you can probably tell, all together there’s not much going on visually in Before Midnight.
Linkater’s artistry comes out in the dialogue though, and in when he changes scenes. Not only is the conversation smart and able to hold your attention, but just when a scene could potentially become tedious, Linkater either changes venue or changes the course of the dialogue. Some of these changes, like a change in the conversation topic, had the same refreshing sense as a change in scenery.
Writer/director Linkater has come a long way from Dazed and Confused, with a subtle subtexting and witty dialogue that not only propels the characters in Before Midnight through the rather bland plot points (ok, no real plot), but also keeps the audience involved.
Despite Linklater’s talents—and to a large part Delpy’s and Hawke’s, both of whom co-wrote the script (and who would know those characters by this time better than they?)—there were a few moments of tedium at the very outset of the movie. This came as a result of audiences having no real involvement or interest in the characters at first. After a short amount of time though, I was invested, and then the non-stop conversations were compelling instead of tedious.
One option for Linklater that might have made the transition into Jesse and Celine’s life a little less jolting and tedious for the viewer might have been to put more of an action sequence at the opening. For instance, the dinner table scene where four couples of different ages and life experience discussed love, life and sex, could have made for a more dynamic intro (it certainly would have been more entertaining than the sitting-in-the-car-driving-and-talking intro). On the whole though, I give Linklater a lot of credit for keeping me engrossed. Just when I thought I couldn’t take another second of circular conversation or nitpicking married couple speak, he would throw in a refreshing change.
Though there is a slight pretention in the constant clever dialogue (something on the indulgent side), it is the careful manipulation of the audience’s attention that becomes both a weakness and a strength. Linklater knows dialogue, and he has crafted a series of movies that are basically long, unbroken takes of two people conversing. Yet they are still compelling. It is this careful crafting (aka manipulation) that gives the film, at times, an unattractive smugness.
Overall, Before Midnight was a winner to me. Any film this dialogue-heavy that can still be subtle, compelling, and engaging is worth the time and money, in my books at least.
Before Midnight is one of those dialogue-driven indie dramas that make you appreciate the medium of film. It also reminds audiences of the subtle artistry that goes into making really great films that, on the surface, don’t look like they can possibly work.