Back when they were in their early 20s, Celine (Julie Delpy) told Jesse (Ethan Hawke) that, if God exists, he’s only in the connections that we forge with others.
“If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something,” she said. “I know it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
That was 18 years ago, in another movie. Before Sunrise was the story of a single night shared by a young American man and French woman who strike up a conversation on a train and impulsively decide to hop off together in Vienna and wander the streets until he catches his flight home in the morning.
Nine years later, in Before Sunset, we learned of what happened after that night. They met again on a sunny afternoon in Paris. Jesse was married, but unhappily. The film left open-ended the question of whether this time they’d make a different choice, deciding not to part ways.
There’s no director today who loves to just point his camera at two characters and let them talk about weird and wonderful ideas more than Richard Linklater does. His best films, beginning with his breakthrough Slacker, are the equivalent of getting to eavesdrop on conversation after conversation among the patrons of the most interesting coffee shop in the world. But, unlike its predecessors, Before Midnight isn’t about the firing off of your brain’s pleasure receptors that comes from encountering a scintillating new thought or person. It’s about the time after you’ve captured that magic of having come to understand someone. It’s about the hard work of lasting love.
Jesse and Celine are a couple now, and have been ever since that day in Paris that’s now nine years past. He’s a novelist (having written fictionalized versions of their first two encounters), and she works on environmental issues. They’ve spent the summer vacationing in Greece with their twin daughters and Jesse’s son from his previous marriage. When they talk now, it’s mostly about parenting decisions, job prospects, mild complaints about each other’s habits, and other minutiae of domestic life.
Unlike in the earlier films, there are several scenes of them apart, talking to the others with whom they’ve shared their vacation. There’s a middle-aged Greek couple who represent the ideal of a relaxed, maturing relationship. There’s a strangely pragmatic pair of 20-somethings who carry on a long-distance relationship with the help of Skype (a technology unavailable when Jesse and Celine said goodbye on that train platform in 1994) and declare themselves comfortable with the knowledge that they won’t be together forever, that they’re bound to break up one day. And there’s the older writer who owns the house and invited them all to stay for the summer, whose wife is absent.
Though Jesse and Celine are still playfully affectionate, they passive-aggressively air grievances about each other to their fellow houseguests. We learn midway through the film that they never married, and that the conception of their daughters was an accident. Their life together is not the pristine love affair that their early encounters promised it might be, and each of them harbors some resentment towards the other for the compromises they’ve had to make.
The film truly comes alive in its last half, when Jesse and Celine are finally left to themselves. They take a long walk to spend the night away from the kids at a hotel in the neighboring village. They talk about how their life is now most easily benchmarked by memories of being with their daughters. There’s no grand talk about spirituality, or bizarre ideas for cinema verite documentaries, or meditations about the meaning of it all, like we might have heard from them before. These are two people no longer trying to impress one another.
Instead of wandering around a beautiful city, they settle down in their hotel room, where much of the film’s last act takes place. It’s a physical manifestation of the fact that the two of them have settled for life within the confines of a domestic box. They’re no longer roaming about together as they once did.
I leave it to you to discover just where they end up after this night of romance, revelations, and recriminations. Hawke and Delpy, who cowrote the screenplay with Linklater, truly capture the sense of a loving couple who have grown a bit weary with the routine of their lives. This third installment of their story isn’t nearly so joyful as the first two (how could it possibly be?), yet it’s just as rich an experience and just as wise. I’m hopeful we’ll check in with them again in another nine years.