Independent Cinema’s 1st Threequel: Before Midnight

A romantic drama

  • Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, & Ethan Hawke
  • Directed by Richard Linklater

This isn’t supposed to happen. You don’t want independent, serious, thoughtful, adult-oriented cinema to have franchises. Art is not expected to have sequels–let alone threequels.

And yet, the third film in Richard Linklater’s Before series is a gem–as good as the first, much better than the second, and a work that can stand entirely on its own. Even if you’ve never seen either of the previous Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy talkfests, you’ll still laugh, cry, and cringe at this study of a relationship in crisis.

Before Sunrise excited and amazed people when it came out in 1995. No plot, and no real conflict. (I described it at the time as My Dinner with Andre with scenery and sex appeal.) A young man and a young woman met on a train, then spent a day and night together, wandering the streets of Vienna, flirting with each other, and talking about their lives, hopes, and anything else. It was, and still is, the ultimate film about falling in love.

Nine years later, Before Sunset brought them back together. They had not seen each other since that night, but they clearly had thought a lot about each other. This time, they walk around Paris–in real time–while catching up. The film was alright, but it lacked the romantic and sexual magic of the original. Frankly, I objected to the whole idea. After nearly a decade of imagining what happened to these two, I didn’t want to be told.

But all that is forgiven with Before Midnight–the deepest and most complex of the three. Whereas Before Sunrise celebrated the giddiness of youth and new love, Before Midnight studies the joys, the conflicts, and the difficulties of a love that has become routine.

This time around, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine image(Delpy) have been living together for nine years, and they might as well be married. They have twins, a life together, and bodies transitioning into middle age. They live in Paris, but Jesse’s son from a previous marriage lives with his mother in Chicago. Jesse feels guilty about living so far from his son, and Celine most definitely does not want to move.

Like the previous films, this one takes place in the course of a single day, but they don’t spend it walking around a city. They’re on vacation in Greece, staying in a lovely villa owned by a British writer (Jesse is now an established and respected novelist). For the first time in the series, they have significant dialog with other people. They join three other couples for dinner, giving a chance for others to take part in the conversation.

They do get to walk and talk–but it’s in a picturesque small town and it’s only a small section of the film. They also talk in a car–a 13-minute single take that would have been technically impossible if this had been shot on film–and for most of the second half of the film, in a hotel room.

They’re clearly not as happy with each other as they once were. They fight. Celine especially lashes out, in ways that struck me as cruel and unfair (and not just because I’m a guy; at least two women in the audience had the same reaction). Both accuse the other of cheating, and each avoids rather than denies the accusation. You’re not sure if the relationship will last.

The result is both sad and sexy. You’re watching a couple who still love each other, physically and emotionally, deal with the realization that the love may not be enough. That can be painful to watch. And if you’ve seen the previous two films, you’re watching this happen to old friends.

I guess we’ll have to wait another nine years for the next installment, possibly called Before Noon.