Saturday, October 26, 2013

No surprise here: Before Midnight is basically perfect

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine's (Julie Delpy) relationship has always been driven by a sense of urgency.  In Before Sunrise, the first installment in Richard Linklater's decades-spanning trilogy, the two of them randomly meet on a train and try to make the most of their one night together before parting ways.  Nine years later, they meet back up in Before Sunset, and have an even more condensed window -- about 90 minutes -- to fill in the gaps and pick up the pieces that formed on that one night in Vienna.  What makes Before Midnight so interesting is that it explores their lives after that urgency has gone away.  No longer under some sort of ticking clock after Jesse decided to miss the flight he was supposed to catch at the end of Sunset, the two of them are deep into their relationship, now with twin daughters and all the time in the world together.

The passage of time has always been deeply ingrained in the series -- there's 9 years between each of the three, both in terms of real-world release dates and within the film.  The transition from Sunrise to Sunset was about showing the little changes that happened to Jesse and Celine in the years that they'd been apart, but in the one from Sunset to Midnight, the two of them remain more or less the same people; only the lens through which they see each other has slightly altered.  Where the Jesse and Celine that met on that train to Vienna 18 years before saw their differences as pieces that fit together to form a better whole, the push and pull of their ideologies causes much more friction in their relationship now.  Smartly, the script (co-written by Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke) plays on elements that were in the DNA of these characters from day one, and shows how easily time can change the perception of the way we see each other.

In my piece about Before Sunset and Before Sunrise, I brought up a point about how they are a reflection upon the current ages of the protagonist at the time of each film.  Midnight continues that trend, offering up a thoughtful meditation on confronting your 40s.  For Jesse and Celine, life is less in front of them and more side-by-side, and they fret about all the anxieties that come with age.  There's a lengthy scene, near the beginning of the film where they're having a meal with the various couples that they're on vacation in Greece with, that's the key to the theme of the story.  In it, they have a conversation about the inevitability of every relationship's demise, revealing the fatalism that runs through all of them.  The circumstances of Jesse and Celine's initial connection was so fortuitous that it seems like their entire relationship has been a highwire act to keep things going.  There was a danger to the end of Sunset that was at once exhilarating and frightening, but everything beforehand was so hypnotizing that you forgot about the doubt and hoped that things would end happily ever after for the two of them.  Midnight asks you to sit down and really think about how their relationship would logically play out.

There's always been a heavy emphasis on talking in these films.  In Sunrise, conversation is what initially attracted Jesse and Celine to each other and in Sunset, it was enough to bring them back together.  But in Midnight, it's the main root of trouble for the two of them.  As was the case with the first two installments in the series, the dialogue in this film is incredible, and every conversation between Hawke and Delpy is well-acted, warm, and funny.  Or at least it starts that way in the case of the latter two qualities, before things quickly turn sour.  During the feeling-out phase of their relationship, disagreement just added to the fire that sparked between them, but 10 years into their relationship, it's more like real bickering.  That's because the stakes have been raised in the time between films -- the excitement of true undying love has faded, and has made space for resentment and disappointment.  Celine feels like her role as a mother has dulled her feminist-tinged hopes and dreams, while Jesse feels like his role as a husband has caused a strain on the relationship with the son from his previous marriage, and their dissatisfaction clashes together all at once in a hotel room where they're supposed to be having a romantic evening.  It's one of the most tense and wrenching sequences I've seen all year.

There's no doubt that this series is a shining achievement in filmmaking.  It's brilliant in that quietly unflashy way, letting these characters age as we do, and checking their pulse every 9 years.  Somehow, Before Midnight manages to be the best of the three films, which is no small feat, given that the other two are some of the best of their respective decades.  But like Jesse says about his third book, which serves as a meta-commentary on this series, this film is much more ambitious and wider in scope.  The first two films were looking in on this specific relationship that formed under extraordinary circumstances, and are lovely because of it, but Before Midnight is about the ups and downs of marriage as a whole, and how falling in love is not the end of any story.

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