After the Sunset

Before Midnight
(USA, 108 min.)
Dir. Richard Linklater, Writ. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke.
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Photo by Despina Spyrou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.
-Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Citizen Kane

What does it mean to chase the one that got away? Mr. Bernstein’s nostalgic monologue in Citizen Kane—one of the film’s best—is a classic ode to a kind of love that seems to exist only in the movies. The unattainable girl on the ferry, the one that got away, serves as a quintessential catalyst in the cinema’s quest for happily ever after.

The girl on the ferry came to life as the girl on the train in Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s Before Sunrise. The Before trilogy is the unlikeliest of movie franchises. Each entry in the romance of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) got better as the franchise aged and the story progressed. In 1995’s Before Sunrise, Jesse met Celine on a train in Vienna and they spent a beautiful night together before parting ways with promises to reconnect. It wasn’t until nine years later, in Before Sunset, that Jesse and Celine finally got back together. As the couple took one long, rambling stroll around Paris, and even took a ride on the Seine, it was clear that they were a pair of love-struck Bernsteins forever chasing the girl on the ferry. Happily-ever-after seemed to exist as the credits rolled on Before Sunset. True love seemed like something that existed beyond the running time of an eighty-minute film.

After the sunset, however, comes Before Midnight. The idealized lovers have become real ones, and the man and the woman on the ferry have come together, had some kids, and started a family. Life sets in, so Jesse and Celine bring to the movies a kind of realistic arc that relationships take when happily-ever-after fades to black with the sunset and the end credits. If Before Sunset realizes the euphoria of attaining the unobtainable, then Before Midnight offers a beautiful wake-up call that Bernstein’s girl on the ferry is just like everyone else. She is flawed and she is fallible. She has hopes, quirks, eccentricities, and fears just like any other partner one can meet on a blind date. Is it not, however, better to see people for who they really are than to wither away like Mr. Bernstein and live forever in a passing moment from one’s youth?

Jesse and Celine carry the baggage of their fairy tale-like romance to Greece, where they’re enjoying the final days of a family vacation. Jesse has just sent Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), his son from his previous marriage, back to America, and Hank’s departure stirs up feelings that seem to have been percolating within Jesse and Celine in the years since Before Sunset. As Jesse and Celine drive to their holiday villa with their young twins in the back seat, comments made in passing become ammunition for divorce. “This is how people start breaking up,” Celine says, as their endless quips reveal a sense of mutual frustration that their relationship didn’t remain as idyllic as the memory of their first night together in Vienna. They recaptured that love in Paris—they’ll always have Paris, as the best Hollywood love story might advise—but it simply isn’t possible to recreate such unbridled romanticism each time the sun rises.

Celine seems to be in attack mode as the car makes its way to the villa. Her neuroses, conveyed spectacularly with Delpy’s zany motor mouth, amplify every disagreement into an argument. Celine, like Bernstein, seems fixated on the past and she isn’t afraid to addle Jesse with insinuations that she sacrificed her life so that he could fulfill his own.

Jesse, played coolly and sympathetically by Hawke, seems far more pragmatic than Celine in wanting to smooth the fissures of their marriage and make amends rather than make a break. Jesse, on the other hand, has arguably appropriated Celine’s life in his quest for success. An author, Jesse made Celine his muse while writing the book that brought them together in Before Sunset; however, he wrote another book in the interval since then and he essentially re-idealized their relationship into a page-turner for the world to read. Celine barely has to vocalize her resentment for being placed on an endless train ride to Vienna, for Delpy conveys her character’s humiliation in a toxic encounter with a well-intentioned fan who asks both Jesse and Celine to sign a copy of Jesse’s novel. With the mere stroke of a pen, Celine gets the chance to rewrite their story forever.

The book signing comes in the third act of the film. It’s a jarring turning point that brings the trilogy to its climactic conclusion. What should be a romantic night at a hotel turns into a grudge match that transforms Jesse and Celine into George and Martha. It’s heartbreaking to watch such a perfect romance go sour. Celine is especially unlikable this time around (mostly), but Delpy is a force to be reckoned with as the fast-talking character, so one is never at complete odds with Celine even when her own hang-ups seem to be writing her own fate. Anything seemed possible when Jesse missed his plane in 2004, but the final act of Before Midnight makes one question if happily-ever-after really exists at all. This Before film is especially poignant because it feels so painfully real.

Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy design the final act of Before Midnight so impeccably, so naturally, and so honestly, that one is never sure whether the latest insult hurled between the pair will be the last. Before Midnight keeps the audience wholly conscious of the clock that is ticking on Jesse and Celine’s relationship, but unlike in the previous Before films, Linklater elides the audience’s ability to measure the time that passes in the story. Gone is the real time effect of Before Sunset, not to mention one’s ability to gauge the story by the level of the light. The evening’s gone dark once the story takes its toxic turn after Jesse and Celine watch the sunset. It’s impossible to tell how much time is left before midnight.

Before Midnight, in a way, feels like a continuation of the trilogy and like an isolated film. (Although one has to see Before Sunrise and Before Sunset to appreciate fully Before Midnight.) As Jesse and Celine walk around the ruins, debating could’ves and should’ves in their uniquely natural, yet academic-like bickering, Before Midnight plays less like a continuation of the Before series and more like a sequel to Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. (That’s by no means a bad thing.) Celine even makes a comparison during their tour to Robert Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, the great film that sees Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders reflect upon their own decaying marriage among the ruins, which essentially served as an original for Juliette Binoche and William Shimell to copy in the Kiarostami film. Before Midnight has a deeper aesthetic than the other films Before films do, and a greater sense of blending art and life. While both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset have a unique charm of their own, Before Midnight seems more self-aware than the others do. It’s as if Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have found the higher purpose behind the love story that’s defied many Hollywood formulas.

Before Midnight keeps one transfixed and invested as one awaits the fate of a relationship that has grown and blossomed on the screen before our eyes. Perhaps it’s the honestly or the sense of spontaneity in Jesse and Celine’s quarrelling that makes it so affecting and believable—the script and excellent performances by Hawke and Delpy have the tenor of real life—but the fate of Jesse and Celine’s relationship seems like an impending judgement on one’s idea of love itself. If love can survive night like this, it can survive anything.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★) 

Before Midnight is currently playing in Toronto at The Varsity and opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 14.
It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne and Empire Kanata on June 21st and at The Mayfair on August 9th.