Sin’s Cormac O’Donnell reviews new movie ‘Before Midnight’…
Riding the critical wave of acclaim from his last feature Bernie (2012), Richard Linklater continues to hit tidal peaks with Before Midnight. This film is a sequel to the films Before Sunrise (1994) and Before Sunset (2004). The terms “sequel” and “trilogy” in cinema often signify complete crap, but thankfully this is not the case here. It is perhaps more helpful to describe this exquisite film as the continuation of an established story.
And what a story it is. The first time we met the American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the French Celine (Julie Delpy), in Before Sunrise, they were both 23 and met on a train en route to Vienna. They followed a fateful romantic impulse and spent a memorable day together. Both had to leave but promised to meet up, which they didn’t. In Before Sunset, aged 32, they finally met after 9 years and that film ends suggesting that they decide to stay together. If you have not seen these films already, then stop your life immediately and go watch them. Since romantic films generally reflect nobody’s life ever, and romantic comedies are nauseating beyond description, it is safe to conclude that romance in cinema is almost impossible to pull off. I’m putting my reputation as a film critic and a guy on the line here, but trust me, this is THE quintessential cinematic love story.
9 years have passed since Jesse missed his plane and decided to stay with Celine in Paris. The couple have stayed together unmarried, and have twin girls. Plot is kept to a bare minimum here; they go for a drive, attend a dinner party and spend a night at a hotel. Oh and they fight… but we’ll get to that. Viewers must be cautioned that this film has absolutely nothing in common with the standard practices of Hollywood film. It is operating from a European art film aesthetic in which most conventions are kept to a minimum. It is a universally ignored truth that the less you do to a film, the more realistic it feels. This notion tends to pass most film-makers by. There are about 4 scenes in this film, which are comprised of brutally long takes and tracking shots. And oh my, how refreshing it is to spend time with characters and have nothing but dialogue take us from scene to scene. It is a sensory overload to spend time with these characters. When they go for a 20 minute stroll, so do we. By taking in the sounds, the smells, the sights, we are taking in life. No rapid edits, narrative twists or CGI propelling this plot forward; just people walking and talking…. which is what people actually do in real life!
Whereas the first two films revolved around notions of fate and missed romantic opportunity, this picture stands as a sobering counterpoint to such idealism. Now both aged 41, middle age has crept up on the couple. In addition to raising twin girls, Jesse is a successful author, yet lacking his youthful creative energy, whilst Celine works at a job which doesn’t particularly fulfil her. The passion and spontaneity of the last 18 years has receded and has been replaced by the everyday routine of raising a family.
The family spend the summer in the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, where they vacation for 6 weeks at the home of Jesse’s fellow writing colleague Patrick and other friends. However, don’t let the sunshine fool you; this is a couple in the winter of their discontent.
Jesse’s 14 year old son Henry from his previous marriage has also spent the summer with them. Jesse laments that he has missed enough of Henry’s life, and is concerned about their future relationship. As a father, he is deeply saddened by the prospect of his son going through his teenage years without him. He wants to be there for his son through this difficult time and do things that only a father can do; discuss girls, guide his interests, teach him to drive etc. He makes such a simple point that will resonate with parents everywhere; these are crucial years that cannot be brought back. In a handful of years, Henry will be on his own, living his adult life. With Jesse living in Paris, how can he look after his son in Chicago? It’s a heart-breaking puzzle.
Just as Jesse’s dilemma is an inherently masculine one, Celine’s problem stems from a crisis of femininity. She no longer pushes herself creatively, nor is actively making a difference working in Third World countries like she used to. She is sad because her job sucks and is worried that she has become what she always rallied against; a submissive housewife. Celine is divided between being a nurturing mother/wife on one hand, and being a shining example of an independent active female on the other. Unable to indulge in her own musical creative outlet, she harbours resentment towards Jesse’s career as an author, taunting him mercilessly throughout the film. She has no end of sarcastic quips on this subject; “You’re very smart, I bet you have a really gigantic penis.” A long term relationship does not simply demand compromise between two individuals, but it also demands compromise within the individual. Being a wife, mother, professional and artist are difficult by themselves, so how does one make time for each facet together?
This script is just magic. Several lines in and of themselves are enough to just floor you. At a dinner party, an elderly friend Natalia, remembers her dead husband with a beautiful philosophical aside; “like sunlight, sunset, we appear, we disappear. We are important to some, but we are just passing through.” Watching the sun go down in real time, Celine softly murmurs, “Still there. Still there. Still there…. Gone.” She is of course describing a sunset, but it’s clear she means her and Jesse’s love. There are also some hilarious one-liners, which are complete verbal firecrackers. Celine ponders the aging process, “one of the perks of being over 35 is that you don’t get raped as much.” Later, bringing some comic relief to a fraught row, Jesse shoots back at Celine “you are the fucking Mayor of Crazytown!” I would be quite happy to give my left arm to write dialogue this sharp.
The final 40 minutes is the most emotionally purging scene I have seen this year in cinema. Think Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), think Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), think Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978) and you’ll get the picture. At some point the script, the actors, the film stops being what they are and become something more; transcendental.
This closing act can only be described as a boxing match. Celine and Jesse are both prize fighters, raining down holy hell upon each other. Instead of punches, they trade devastating verbal blows. The viewer, acting as referee ends up getting battered by both. There isn’t even a great deal of shouting or fury here. The hurt is in the snide throwaway remarks. Whilst they might go unnoticed by others, here they serve to elucidate further revelatory pain. A sample exchange is when Celine says, “the only time I get to think is when I take a shit at the office. I’m now starting to associate having thoughts – with the smell of shit.” Jesse retorts: “you somehow manage to find the time to complain 8 hours a day!”
The acting from both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in this scene is so perfect, that I often felt uncomfortable viewing the proceedings. They truly wear these characters like a second skin.
Their portrayal is so real, so intimate, that I genuinely felt embarrassed and awkward bearing witness to personal exchanges that were none of my business. I wanted to leave, or at least look away, but dared not; so strong was the emotional catharsis. If most of the work behind a long-term relationship goes on behind closed doors, then Before Midnight is what happens when those doors are opened.
Before Midnight is an extremely rare thing in cinema; a bona fide instant classic. This is not an indistinguishable film that will fade from memory. Why? It is quite simply a film about two human beings. There are no artificial responses here, just pure undistilled emotion. That’s it.
This is a film that will stay with you for your whole life, leaving an indelible print on your brain. You will return to it time and time again, studying the questions it poses and perhaps answering some of them as you grow older. In 50, 100 or whatever amount of years into the future, it will be as affecting to future audiences as it is to the contemporary one. Put simply, if you are a human being, you will love this.