Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 4
(NOTE: This review does contain spoilers of the two previous films, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004).)
In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess to a certain unavoidable degree of subjectivity in assessing what has become writer/director Richard Linklater’s fictional riff on the Seven Up! documentaries (1964-). I was a 24 year-old when the post-graduate wanderer, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), decided to strike up a conversation with the radiant French pixie, Celine (Julie Delpy), on a train bound for Vienna the night before his return home to the States (Before Sunrise (1995)). At the time, this night-long conversation of a film seemed both romantic and real.
Nine years later, I had earned enough regret in my life to have lost a number of delusions I had about romantic love at age 24. And in Before Sunset (2004), we found out that Jesse and Celine never met at the train station six months after their fateful encounter, as they had originally promised in true Hollywood fashion. Instead, Jesse, a semi-successful writer riddled with a vague feeling of discontent, runs into Celine while on the Paris stop of a book tour. From their day-long conversation, there is little doubt that, despite the passage of time, Jesse and Celine were as meant for each other as is possible. But at this stage in the game of life, there would be collateral damage if Jesse chose to miss his flight back home this time. Like the first film, we were left wondering. And with both films, Linklater, co-writer Kim Krizan, and their two co-stars (who earned Oscar nominations as co-writers) tapped directly into my time and place to pose the question: What is the truth of romance?
Nine years later, as the trailer to Before Midnight reveals, we find Jesse and Celine together on an extended vacation in Greece with their two twin daughters. Their age is really starting to show. Removed from the vacuum of the streets of Vienna and Paris, the decisions made after the last film have affected others – haunting their relationship and leaving them at yet another crossroads. So quite appropriately, Linklater and company have chosen to expand the narrative scope. The first half of the film introduces Jesse’s son and a cast of friends who play like ghosts of lovers past, present, and future, while the second half brings us the inevitable conversation between Jesse and Celine as they make their way through one last romantic night before returning home. Even if the seams between script and improvisation do show from time to time, the conversations are just as honest and convincing as they were in the first two films. In negotiation mode, Jesse and Celine are just as rough around the edges as we remember them, albeit carrying a bit more baggage. The net effect is verisimilitude – uncomfortable at times, but never straying into the realm of the cynical. And although we are not left with the same plot cliffhangers as in the previous two installments, we are left with the same fundamental question: Will Jesse and Celine be together? And like real love, we can never take the answer to that question for granted.
I wonder if Before Midnight will reconcile me to Before Sunset -and thus to the trio together? Before Sunset – while I recognized it as good filmmaking/writing, etc., – I very much disliked. I couldn’t feel at all sympathetic towards Jesse and Celine; my thoughts were with the wife and son at home. Your hints here that this film, in some way, uses the “collateral damage” in a significant way in Jesse and Celine’s relationship gives me hope.
I kind of looked at ‘Before Sunset’ like this: sometimes in life, we don’t do the things we should when we should. Jesse is not happy with his life at the moment the second film begins, and Jesse screwed up by not meeting Celine 6 mos. later – a victim of his own cynicism. Jesse screws up in the nine years before this film as well (as you will find). Celine has issues of her own. But there is something about their imperfections that has endeared me to both of them and these films: they are TRYING to love the right person, which is really the essence of romance. The fact that the films attribute consequences to their mistakes is what gives it all weight. And that weight connects me to this big little story and leaves me with a sort of unconditional cinematic love for their characters – like a brother and a sister. I want to root for them, warts and all.
I’ve seen Before Midnight now – more on that in a moment.
It’s not that I want a film to show only the good stuff, to show just “nice people.” I want the warts and all, too. The problem with Before Sunset is that it asked me to sympathize with the idea that Jesse and Celine should be together for the sake of romance, for the sake of the love that never was, for the sake of a romantic ideal. It assumes I want them to be together simply because of Before Sunrise. And that seemed to be the response most had to Before Sunset; everyone said it was such a romantic film and the idea of Jesse and Celine finally together made everyone happy. It just didn’t make me happy. I get the longing they had for each other. Jesse, in fact, had nutured it for nine years by writing a book about it. But, honestly, I couldn’t sympathize with that. Maybe it was the “wrong” decision to get married to his wife, but he did. But then he didn’t even give the marriage or her a chance; he chose, instead, to feed the fantasy of that lost love of his. Do people do that? Is it realistic? Absolutely. And I want films to be realistic. But if you ask me to be happy about the choice he was essentially making at the end of Before Sunset and in the intervening years before Before Sunset, no, I’m sorry, I can’t. Whatever wonderful romance you’ve had before a marriage is moot, especially once children are involved. I think you owe your children and the marriage your devotion. And it might be rough, but since I don’t believe in the ideal, then ANY marriage, however romantic and ideal it seems, is going to take work and effort. Jesse gave up on it. I don’t find it romantic that he did. It might be realistic, but I don’t sympathize with his decision.
But on to Before Midnight. The film did reconcile me to Before Sunset a little because Before Midnight does acknowledge the consequences of Jesse’s decision of Before Sunset. And it’s pretty rough. I appreciate that roughness. Those consequences have, on some level, poisoned Jesse and Celine’s relationship. It’s no longer the innocent romance of Before Sunrise. So there’s a great deal about Before Midnight that I appreciate. I particularly loved the hotel room argument – the arcs of it were perfect, the things said felt absolutely real. And I’m entirely sympathetic with Celine there – her fears and struggles are my fears and struggles, especially as she articulates those in the hotel room. Those were very real, very true to what many women feel, I think. But I liked how the film showed her fears and struggles to be both deep and petty. Perfect. She is both sympathetic and unsympathetic in that scene.
But there are things about Before Midnight that don’t ring true to me – and those things bother me. It’s tauted as being so gritty and real – and yes, there are things in it, like the hotel argument, that are. But other things, hmmm, not so much, and they are tainting the film for me. 1) The twin daughters. I’m sorry, but it annoys me that they’re so cute and angelic. Those are not like real children – they sleep in the car all the way and then are quiet and totally sweet when they wake up (really?? 7 year olds?? Do these people even have children??), and then they are completely absent during the dinner meal. Any parent will tell you that an uninterrupted dinner, when you have young children in the house, simply does not happen. And maybe that’s nit-pick, but if the film asks me to sympathize with the strain having children has put on Jesse and Celine, then, no, I’m sorry. You didn’t show me that, so I just don’t believe it. In theory, I believe it, but unfortunately, the film just went to movie world tropes where children are either cute, clever, and angelic or demons. If we’re truly to sympathize with Celine’s struggles as she describes them in the hotel in constantly having to care for the children, then we need to see her doing that. We don’t. 2) I liked the conversation in the car – it was ordinary and rather mundane for the most part with the one extended conversation that had to do with the job offer. The walking to the hotel on the other hand . . . Would a couple of nine years really be so constantly chattering to each other about relatively deep subjects? I wished, honestly, for a little silence. I felt the movie conversation had its audience, not its characters, in mind. We haven’t seen them for 9 years, so we wanted them to chatter. We wanted them to talk about the first time they met. But would they have really done that? How often do longtime couples actually re-hash the origins and journey of their relationship? It happens, sure, but here, I don’t know, it just felt false to me. I kind of wanted them to just be quiet for a second. Like real people. 3) The ex-wife is demonized. Really? She can’t be the total witch Jesse and Celine make her out to be, especially if the son is such a good kid and he lives with his mother most of the time. Do I believe the ex-wife hates Jesse? Of course. I would. But that she’s an evil woman only out to sabotage everything, no, I don’t believe that. A big misstep, I thought, in the writing. If they wanted to make things really gritty and real, they would have made the ex-wife a decent woman, someone who wasn’t so easy to hate, but rather someone who’d been hurt and who had to deal with the ex-husband and his new family (and new competition from a step-mom figure who is clearly very close to the son), whisking her son off to a glamorous vacation in Greece for 6 weeks. She really can’t compete, can she? But the film doesn’t even let us sympathize with her; it asks us to believe she’s a horrible person. I don’t believe it. Suspension of disbelief broken.
I’ve complained a lot here, but I do, actually, really like the film. It’s fantastic aspects make me wish all the more though that it had been more perfect. That it had dealt even more with the consequences of the choices made after Before Sunset. That it’d given us real children and a real ex-wife and some real silence.
The entire triology so far is, truly, an extraordinary accomplishment, and I have hopes that there will be a 4th film. Perhaps that film will reconcile me to some of the things in this one. I hope so.
Oh, fun – love the replies. At the outset, it’s hard to disagree with somebody who doesn’t give objective ratings to their films 🙂 (The trilogy is A+/A/A for me.) So I wish I could rebut, although I don’t think I necessarily disagree with you. But to your three annoyances (Warning to everybody else: SPOILERS AHEAD) …
1. I didn’t spend enough screen time with the twins for me to have as strong feelings either way. But then again, as we have discussed before, I am not an actual parent. 🙂 As for the cuteness, we’re talking about the offspring of Julie Delpy, right? C’mon! I bought it.
2. I think the conversation in the street is the one structural narrative connection to the prior two films, so I appreciated it being there, although it really comes across to me as a prelude to the emotional meat of the film. In all three films, Jesse (being Jesse) tends to shield himself with charming humor and philosophical musings, and that sequence seems to serve as an exercise in Celine chipping away at the stone (trying to NICELY broach the subjects they WILL broach once they get naked, literally) while yes, giving us some valuable information. So sure, the writers are serving the audience, but there is a certain underlying artificial conceit to all of the films, no? (I mean, do young women like Celine really talk to strangers like Jesse on a train?) I guess that the real question here is not so much guessing the motives of the writers, but whether it works or not. It works for me. (With regard to this sequence, did you find it interesting that as they sat in the ancient chapel, we find out Jesse and Celine are not actually married? Those are the little tidbits that work for me.)
3. You know, it’s not that I disagree with your observations, but for the purposes of this film (which is really about a single relationship), I saw the ex-wife as being the external object of projection of Jesse and Celine’s own problems. Sure, objectively speaking, the ex-wife is not going to be generous when it comes to shared custody, and I can believe that under the circumstances. But there is an interesting detail that suggests the dynamic is a bit more complex off-screen. That is, did you notice that Hank (Jesse’s son) actually calls Celine – and not Jesse – to let them know he arrived at the connecting flight? I think it says something about the relationship Celine – that is, she disses the ex-wife a lot in the hotel room mixing it up with Jesse; but outside of that context, Celine serves as a buffer between Hank (who just seems to want to keep the peace) and Jesse (who is utterly neurotic about fatherhood). It would seem that Celine does not speak that way to Hank about his mother – otherwise Hank would not have that level of comfort with Celine.
To me, for all the “realness” to this series of films that so many viewers (including me) appreciate, there is one hauntingly romantic idea that lingers and probably always will as long as they continue to make these films: the worst mistake Jesse and Celine ever made was NOT to meet six months after Before Sunrise.
Ratings sidenote: I find it nearly impossible to rate films! Whenever I do, I’m distinctly uncomfortable doing so – and waffle around before I rate one, and then, inevitably, change my rating later on. I do feel comfortable saying if I love something or don’t love something; then, there’s still space to say, “but I understand the film has problems” or “but I understand technical craft of the film.” Here, I don’t love the film. But there are things about it I like a lot – and I appreciate so much of the craft of the thing. So. How the heck could I give a grade to that?! Still, I appreciate seeing grades from other people – and it’s true, conversations can happen once those grades are given. So, I’ll just have to continue waffling around, and you will boldly give grades. 🙂 (I wonder if our respective professions influence our responses to films? As a literature person, I’ve never written papers in which I “rate” a text – nope. I analyze a text, reflect on its implications, trace themes, etc. Perhaps your profession demands a more definitive approach, decision? Anyway, I love the various approaches to film within the cinematic community! It’d be so boring if everyone rated – or didn’t rate – films like me.)
1) You’re right, of course, Celine’s children would be totally adorable. But no kid, no matter how cute, is an angel at heart. 😉 I suppose our responses to that element of the film are going have to be very personal there; as a mother of young children, I just can’t turn a blind eye to how films deal with children!
2) That’s a good point about the walking and talking middle of the film – that it acts as a nice structural segue and a prelude. And I guess our varying responses to it are going to, again, be tied to the personal. (Personal attachment and identificiation – as they relate to the viewer’s relationship to and judgment of the film – do seem to play a larger role here in these films than for most films, wouldn’t you say? It’s interesting.) Certainly, there is something contrived about all the films, but I guess the constant talking just didn’t work as well for me in this third film. In the first, there’s the need to impress and the desire to get to know one another – constant talking certainly defined my college/university life – and in the second, they are meeting after nine years of no contact – they have a lot to say. In this film, it felt too much like they were “catching up” or something, not as if they’d lived together for 9 years. But yeah, if it worked for you, it worked! I’m glad, honestly. (And anyway, I seem to be in a very small minority of people who find anything wrong with the film at all. 😀 ) The revelation that they weren’t married – hmmm. It didn’t really register too much with me one way or another, I guess, but it is an interesting choice that makes me curious about what a subsequent film will hold.
3) Yes, it is interesting that Hank called Celine, and I was thinking, too, that that things said in the hotel room have to be taken with a grain of salt. The way Celine re-casts and re-casts Jesse’s initial response in the car to her job offer and the way she re-casts her own initial response to that offer show us that they are both speaking from an overwrought emotional place where they are seeking ammunition and/or seeing injury where there is none (or very little) because they feel injured themselves. The discussion of the ex-wife is caught up in that volatile emotional environment, and I think what they say about her there can’t quite be trusted. Still, I wish we had more hints than that Jesse and Celine could be unreliable in what they’re saying about her.
And yes, you’re right – that romantic “what if” or, rather, “could have been” of this series is the draw. And I understand that longing, that romance. And ultimately, I’m also really glad the series – in this third film – has brought at least some bite of reality crashing down on its romance while managing, I think, to avoid cynicism. And how many films achieve that? All in all, in spite of my reservations, it’s pretty extraordinary.
Your insights are always appreciated … Aren’t teachers supposed to be used to giving grades and lawyers supposed to be practiced in vacillation? Seriously though, I find the relative grading or rating a film is helpful in the sense that it gives weight what is discussed. For example, I am sure that if you read enough of my reviews, you would get to the end of one and say something like, “And then you gave that a B-!” What I spend most of my time discussing in a review (because it’s interesting or unique or whatever) may or may not correlate to what I really think about a film on the whole. I only made the comments because your assessments of ‘Before Midnight’ – as articulate as they are – were also a bit equivocal 🙂 Eventually, your readers just want to know: Did you like it or not, and if so, how MUCH?
Really jealous that you already have seen this one. Looking forward to checking it out and your score only adds to that. It should be out over here next week, which feels like ages if you really want to see something 😉