Before Midnight is arguably the best third instalment of a film series of all time, and a damn good contender for best film of 2013 so far while we’re at it. Its predecessors, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, set a perilously high standard and it’s cleared comfortably. It’s of a piece with those two films while feeling like a natural evolution of the themes and ideas therein; themes that become more apparent three films later.
Each film asks a variation on the same question – what if? Before Sunrise finds Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), ripe with the possibilities of young adulthood, asking “What if I just spend the night with this stranger?” Before Sunset finds them at a crossroads, increasingly settled in their own selves but wracked with insecurity – “What if I’d explored a relationship with that person? What if I’m not where I’m supposed to be, not the person I’m supposed to be?” Before Midnight continues the trend but asking questions that are even more difficult to answer. A decade later, in their early forties, they now must consider, “What if this – children, work, everything that dominates my life – what if it’s all there is? What if when I say that I’m happy, that I’m in love … what if they’re just words?”
It’s heavy stuff, especially compared to the lightness of its predecessors, which were practically escapist fare; doe-eyed young lovers strolling through beautiful European cities. The first act of the film seems like it’s following the same playbook, but there’s a palpable undercurrent of tension in the early scenes that inevitably erupts. I’m reluctant to discuss the particulars of the plot in great detail, as much of the joy of these films comes from watching director Richard Linklater pull back the curtain inch-by-inch, revealing what has transpired since the last film; but I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that the film’s final half is dominated by a sprawling, spiralling fight between Jesse and Celine.
The fight takes a long, meandering journey but is inextricably wedded to specifics: this is not a pointless fight, where details are obscured by point-scoring, but an adult conversation about real issues whose importance is undeniable. As in previous films, later exchanges feel like a culmination of every word that precedes them; except where Sunrise and Sunset, earlier conversations break through the barriers strangers put up against one another, here, there’s the need to break out of habit to honest, heartfelt dialogue. Their fight is consistently credible; they wander from topic to topic, aiming for rational discussion but forever sliding into frustrated childishness. It’s apparent that Delpy and Hawke understand these characters intimately in every word and gesture; its no surprise that they are again credited as screenwriters alongside Linklater.
Before Sunrise and Sunset were imbued with melancholic romanticism, a kind of infectious, quixotic joy. Each is an enlivening experience. Before Midnight is an altogether different experience. It’s a difficult film to watch, often heartbreakingly sad. And the ending, which feels like a mirror image of the taxi ride from Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine side by side, wanting to reach out to one another … that ending is many things – emotional, expertly executed – but “enlivening” is not one of them.
The world in which two people could meet on a train and then lose contact for almost a decade no longer exists, and Before Midnight acknowledges this; while it is set predominantly in the gorgeous ruins of Greece, sustaining the autumnal, ageless European atmosphere of the earlier films, it acknowledges that Jesse’s and Celine’s experience is already obsolete, with frequent references to iPhones, Facebook and Skype. The Greece setting is more than just a pretty backdrop; it’s clearly been carefully chosen, the contrast between the country’s lackadaisical beauty and its ever-present economic troubles suiting the film thematically (and the frequent inclusion of children and even pregnant women amongst the extras is surely not accidental).
I think, deep down, what I wanted from Before Midnight was a happily ever after, a charming coda for a charming series. What Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have produced is no Cinderella story, but a powerfully honest examination of middle-aged relationships, a masterpiece stunning in its simplicity.