It’s almost impossible to talk about Before Midnight, the third in Richard Linklater/Julie Delpy/Ethan Hawke’s series about the rocky relationship between an American boy and a French girl, without making comparisons to the Up series of documentaries. Where the Up series returns to its real-life subjects once every seven years, the Before… series has so far returned to its central couple once every nine years. Whether it will pick up again a decade from now, or whether this entry finally capped the series is yet to be determined (my gut says look for another entry in 2022).
Yet the connection goes deeper than this skin-deep relationship between both series’ chronology. I look back to my first time watching Seven Up – it is enjoyable, funny, thoughtful. Yet that first movie begins to take on greater significance as the “character” of the interviewees develops as they age. The later entries re-frame the original, while the first necessarily informs those which come later. The same is true here, as the things we know about the characters from those earlier installments are extrapolated into more than just moments, for the first time. For example, in Before Sunset Jesse has written a successful novel about his first meeting with Celine; this isn’t given too much thought, as it was primarily the vehicle by which their reuniting was set in motion. Yet consider now what it would be like for Celine, a decade later, known by strangers because of Jesse’s literary sex scenes and romanticism. In the most recent entry in the documentary series, 56 Up, one of the subjects speaks of the series as having been sort of Biblical, a dredging up of the past every seven years. For Celine, the movie isn’t just returning every seven or nine years, however; she is frequently reminded of the “perfect” relationship she and Jesse had, and too often has cause to compare it to their relationship currently.
And where are they currently, nearly 20 years out from their initial awkward meeting in Vienna? They’re together, living in Paris, with two young daughters. An analog to the end of the first movie, this begins with a departure – specifically, the departure of Jesse’s son from his first marriage, leaving Europe to return to his mother in the States. It puts into Jesse’s head a wealth of questions about the job he’s done as a father, both spoken and unspoken. The effect it has had on Jesse rubs off on Celine, who feels held back by Jesse’s immaturity and having to cater to his desires. Each holds a little bit of a grudge against the other, though each is also aware that his or her complaints are alternately justified and irrational. Thus, where both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were about the spark of romance, the bulk of Before Midnight finds the couple huddled around what may very well be the last fading ember of that romance. They are sarcastic toward one another, judging, back-biting, accusatory. It’s sort of painful to watch this idealized couple come to such a negative place, after twice before finding such solace in one another.
Yet, as ever, Linklater/Delpy/Hawke have constructed something that is extraordinarily human and relatable. First, they carry with them all of the same feelings and thoughts and leanings that they had expressed previously. At one point here, Celine says that she’s always felt that life is déjà vu or a dream, to which Jesse says, “I know you have.” I was amazed by the interaction because she had made the statement, in a previous film, that she feels like an 80-year old woman looking back on her life. Her declaration in Before Midnight reiterates the prior statement, but there are two things that make the line distinctive here: (a) she says it as though she is telling Jesse something he didn’t know, the casual forgetfulness of a long-term relationship; (b) even more stunning is the fact that she has re-stated her earlier thought, but in a totally different way. It would be easy, and perhaps expected, for the movie to have Celine repeat herself exactly. Instead, it reflects the same or similar concept in a new way–an organic paraphrasing of a thought that, it is clear, she carries with her constantly.
Second, the frustrations and uncertain regrets the two have, these are incredibly easy to understand. It’s tempting to side with one or the other throughout the extended argument, but there are things that bubble up throughout that put each in a negative light. Celine does seem to be fatalist about their relationship; Jesse does seem distant. And the failings each highlight are easy to see in oneself. Whether it’s a matter of the way men are versus the way women are, as has been suggested in the previous installments, conversations like the one where Celine accuses Jesse of depressing himself by comparing his work to that of Martin Luther King or Gandhi was something I could identify with. I do feel like there is nothing worth doing except changing all the ills of the world, and I do get sullen when I realize the impossibility of that gargantuan undertaking. Celine feels limited by her sex, even as she is aware that she is not living in the 1950s. She still resents what she sees as Jesse’s limited role in rearing their children, and she resents what she feels is his desire to maintain his “status” in their relationship. These are utterly human, true-to-life, reasonable fears and angers. These movies don’t feel as though they’re written at all, and that’s a testament to the three writers’ skill, as well as that of the actors. Their struggle seems intimate and natural.
Third, Before Midnight shocks by the very nature of its premise. Gone are the philosophical conversations of the past – the conversation is much more concrete, even as it centers on their subjective emotions. This is a movie where the two lovers get mad at one another, where the threat of their break-up is perpetually on the edge of the screen. In a remarkable sequence, the two yell at each other from different rooms – something that fighting couples no doubt do, but which feels unusual to see on film nonetheless. They sometimes try to calm themselves and get to a point where they’re much more civil to one another, making jokes and laughing, but then a change in tone or a misspoken sentiment sets the whole thing off again. It’s tense, involving, and keeps the viewer–or at least, the viewer invested in their relationship–with brow furrowed and stomach in knots with uncertainty about the outcome. By breaking a bit from the narrative of the earlier films, Before Midnight sets itself apart. It could be said that it seeks to achieve something different from its predecessors; it could be said that it continues seeking to achieve something we weren’t fully aware the series was attempting. That is, to show a portrait of a relationship – the ups, the downs, the heartache both thrilling and devastating.
It’s an amazing film, on its own. Within the context of its series, it’s a bona fide masterpiece.