By Laurie Coker
Few films can sustain characters like Richard Linklater’s films Before Sunrise (1994), Before Sunset (2004) and now, nine years later, his newest in the series Before Midnight, but because they are richly drawn and immensely engaging, we follow along in their lives with interest and curiosity. We can find comfort and connections in this series’ protagonists, played brilliantly by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who collaborate on the stories with Linklater. It’s pleasing to follow along in the next stage of Celine and Jesse’s relationship.
While it is not necessarily vital to have seen the first two films, as this one stands alone, I recommend it. Regardless, when the film opens we find American novelist Jesse (Hawke), now divorced and living in Paris with Celine (Delpy), traveling with their twin daughters (young Jennifer and Charlotte Prior) through the gorgeous Greek countryside on the final day of a six week long family vacation, where they spent time at a writer colleague’s guest house on Greece’s Southern Peloponnese peninsula. The trip included Jesse’s teenage son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) and we are moved as we watch Jesse makes one final effort to connect with his obviously disinterested son, but the scene brings us closer to understanding our characters.
Hawke and Delpy play Celine and Jesse realistically. They hide nothing and give away everything – emotion, energy and even wrinkles. They are like all of us in so many ways and with that we can easily connect to their angst, shortcomings and desires. Celine, in true from, banters back and forth with the more reserved and passive Jesse, and we learn how the relationship works in spite of obvious character differences. It is easy to connect and to find comfort in this intriguing pair. And when they join friends, three more couples in varying stages of relationships, at an alfresco dinner, we are privy to even more insight into life and love. The characters range in age (like multiple generations in a family), and their musings about life, literature, love, sex, sexual relations in the age of social media, differences between men and women, and more, in another directors or other writers’ hands, might be dull. But this cast, this director and this script are the perfect combination for witty, charming and reflective entertainment.
In spite of everything and the obvious blissful vacation, Jesse and Celine, given one night alone, go at each other, ruining a perfect opportunity to reconnect as a couple and not as parents or paramours. This, too, feels familiar and although Celine and Jesse are perhaps even more passionate than most, we get it – we understand why they feel the need to mess up all that is good. I won’t spoil the ending, but will say, in one night, when they could connect intimately in a way their story had not yet allowed, they manage to go full-blown, accusatory angry at each other and we are in the wake.
Narratives as fresh as this one don’t come around as often as I’d like. I saw Before Midnight as part of SXSW and it is one of my favorites. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke know human nature and surround themselves with splendid settings and droll characters, making it a pleasing romp (helmets and pads necessary) through love and relationships. It earns an A in my grade book.