In 1994’s Before Sunrise, twentysomethings Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met on a train. After one very talkative, very special night together, they parted ways, agreeing to meet in six months. It was nine years before they met again, in Before Sunset: Jesse wrote a book based on their first meeting, and Celine found him at a Paris reading.
If Sunrise was very much a talky-sweet mid-’90s indie film, Sunset was exponentially stronger, more grown-up and nuanced; it unfolded in unfussy real-time as Jesse and Celine walked the streets of Paris, figuring out who did or didn’t show up, all those years ago — and why, and who they had become since then. Sunrise ended with the lovers apart, Sunset with them together, at least for the moment. Nine years later, as Before Midnight begins, they’re still together, and the parents of twin girls.
But director Richard Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with his stars, makes you guess for a little while, picking up with Jesse — his dated goatee still in place — dropping off his son from a previous marriage at the airport. He’s an awkward, part-time dad, trying a little too hard, wanting a closeness he can’t force. When he gets in the car with Celine (Delpy, unfairly, gets more beautiful) and his sleeping daughters, we get a few quiet moments before it’s clear that this seemingly fated relationship isn’t really a happily-ever-after.
What it is is much more complicated, and much better, than that. As with the first two films, the beautiful setting is secondary; Linklater is never going to linger on the loveliness of Greece, where Jesse and Celine are vacationing, when he can stay with the shifting faces of his leads. At a long dinner with friends, Jesse and Celine spar, pick at each other, shift toward each other in their seats, snuggle and mock; the conversation turns to what men and women are like, and how they’re different, each couple with a theory of their own, or a system for managing relationships.
The conversation is often frustratingly reductive — women are nurturers, men care about their genitals! — but it serves a purpose. As the night goes on, and Jesse and Celine part ways with their company, their conversation circles and twists, proving and disproving everything that’s been said about men and women. In turns, both are angry, emotional, rational, irrational, cruel or peacemaking. Their fight is about everything and nothing, and comes to repeated dead ends; some of the topics are fresh, some obviously covering old ground and some the sort of thing neither could previously stand to say out loud.
To listen to (and watch) them fight is to feel like an eavesdropper of the most intimate sort. The history between Delpy and Hawke shows as clearly as the years show on their faces. You can’t see them acting, only arguing and aching, and trying to claw their way into the next stage of connection. This is the most mature romance I can remember seeing onscreen — the kind where a fight, even an ugly one, isn’t an end, but a process; the kind that tackles head-on the possibility of regretting the compromises one makes in search of love.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT: Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, based on characters created by Linklater and Kim Krizan. Cinematography, Christos Voudouris. Editor, Sandra Adair. Music, Graham Reynolds. Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Sony Pictures Classics, 2013. R. 109 minutes. Four Stars.