“Before Midnight” and Emotional Catharsis

In Before Sunrise, Jesse was a young American about to wrap up a lengthy vacation in Europe when on his last night, he met Celine on a train passing through Vienna on its way to Paris. Scintillating conversation gave way to enchanting romance and they got off the train to spend one magical night hanging out before Jesse’s flight home to America leaves in the morning. Though they try and schedule a reunion, real life gets in the way after the closing credits of Before Sunrise. Jesse and Celine don’t see one another for nine years until Jesse writes a book about that one night which becomes so popular that Celine reads it and attends the last stop on his book tour, which is in Paris. This marks the beginning of Before Sunset, in which the star-crossed lovers wander another European city talking about life, personal issues, and dealing with the trials of adulthood while Jesse’s impending flight home around sunset lends a sense of urgency. Nine years apart changes them, with both Celine and Jesse somewhat bitter about their separation yet relieved to find one another again. Before Sunset ends on an ambiguous note, with the two of them in Celine’s apartment, acknowledging that he might miss his flight.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euOJkb0U8vE]

Another nine years have passed since that day when Before Midnight opens in a Grecian airport. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is sending his teenage son back to America after a summer vacationing in the south of Greece. Over the course of an afternoon, Jesse and Celine (Julie Delpy) drive back to their friend’s estate with their adorable, blonde twin girls in tow, where they spend a pleasant afternoon socializing and enjoying a lengthy meal with companions they’ve stayed with all summer. Afterwards, Jesse and Celine walk into town where they are meant to spend a relaxing evening together away from their children. Throughout the film, Jesse and Celine’s mutual frustrations with one another are revealed during their conversations together and with others, at first subtly in the way they casual make digs at one another and then more overtly when they are alone together and it erupts into full-argument. Many of their problems stem from the sacrifices each has had to make in order to maintain their relationship, but more than enough professional concerns fill in any relaxing blanks they could have had. At the forefront of these sacrifices are Celine’s feminine independence and Jesse’s relationship with his son. Resentment gives rise to exploding anger and though it is never spelled out directly, it becomes clear that the two of them have until midnight to reconcile their differences or all will be lost.

The nine-year gap between movies has by now firmly established this trilogy as one devoted to capturing the stages of love and life. Before Sunrise shows us a saccharinely bittersweet romance that all first loves have, idealistic and youthful. Before Sunset features a romance that, though tainted by years of frustration, still offers a hopeful would-be ideal conclusion to the story. Despite a maturing trend in first two films, they are still sickeningly romantic and taint our conceptualizations of love in the way that romantic movies tend to do. Even if it isn’t conscious, viewers always wish that their own love lives involved mystical encounters with beautiful strangers in foreign countries and the kind of heart-to-heart earnest conversations that can change your life. But that isn’t always the case, and even if you do have a magical evening with that stranger in a foreign land, what happens tomorrow? Even more importantly, co-writer and director Richard Linklater tackles that question here: what happens nine years later, eighteen years after the magic begins? Real life and real problems. That’s what happens.

Whereas Before Sunrise and Before Sunset gave us an inspirational love story that perhaps clouded our perception of reality in the best way possible, Before Midnight gives us the much-needed dose of reality. One way that Linklater does this is by making the film so self-aware that it inches towards being meta. Over lunch, a young couple in their early twenties relate how they met months previously but then had to go their separate ways. Rather than wait nine years to reconnect, they opted to Skype every day until they could be together again. Jesse and Celine sort of roll their eyes and agree that it’s all adorable, no doubt considering their own years of frustrated separation and current familial frustrations. Aren’t things just so much easier nowadays?

When Jesse and Celine finally have a moment alone together on their walk to the hotel, Celine laughs, remarking how long it’s been since they’ve just walked and talked together (re: how long it’s been since they’ve done anything like the mere hours we’ve seen of them together out of the two decades they’ve known one another). This is the reality of life and most marriages. People are busy with living and working; alone time is hard to find and magical moments are realistically rare.

There’s even a scene in which Jesse and Celine sit quietly watching the sunset. “Still there,” Celine says every couple seconds several times until the sun finally sets. It’s quiet. It’s gentle. It’s a bit of wordlessly eloquent, poignant symbolism. Right after this sunset is the inevitable confrontation between Jesse and Celine, which also happens to take place Before After Sunset. Pretty neat, huh? Reality in the wake of cute, tender moments. Reality in the wake of cute, tender movies. In the film’s final scene, Jesse takes a stab at reconciliation by using his typical ploy of humor mixed with hyper-romance. Irritated, Celine barks out, reminding him that they aren’t in one of his novels, where things magically work out through sheer whim and will. Celine even gets miffed when a random woman asks both Jesse and her to sign copies of his books *gasp* as if they were the real people in the books! But they aren’t, are they? The characters in those novels are just as fake to Celine and Jesse as Celine and Jesse are to us. Around every corner, we are reminded that this is not before Sunrise or Sunset. Midnight is an entirely different creature, and all along this has been a story of fiction.

Before Midnight breaks down a lot of barriers in an effort to show us the parts of their relationship that we don’t even necessarily want to see. In the hotel room, Jesse and Celine get quite frisky, gearing up for a night of passion, rife with a surprisingly topless scene with plenty of body kissing. The foreplay is cut short when Jesse’s son calls Celine’s cell phone to let her know that his plane landed. She ignores Jessie’s hand gestures clearly telling her that he’d like to at least say hello to his son. This kind of behavior can provide the quintessential nuisance that can gestate into the perfect storm of couple-fights, and gestate it does. It’s interesting how deftly the first two films pan-away and gloss over the sex scenes (Before Sunrise) or lead right up to it without showing it (in Midnight, Jesse all but smugly confirms that the events of Before Sunset culminated in days and days of passionate sex – which is explicitly revealed in his novel). They say that romance is in the unseen – or something like that. What they say and what they show is more graphic than ever; the only thing that is certain here is that relationships can be a lot of work. Even more importantly: they are worth it. We root for this couple in the end because we are rooting for ourselves.

Despite what these pictures might imply, Before Midnight has more variation in its wardrobe than the previous two movies combined!

From a technical standpoint, Before Midnight is expertly crafted. The locations and scenes are gorgeous. The plot structure is easy to follow and even with only a cursory knowledge of the previous two movies, Midnight is easy to understand and even easier to love. We get a satisfying, emotional portrayal of love as willed action and not mere passively acquired emotional fervor, something that is cathartic to see after the unbelievable romanticisms of the first two films.

If I have any complaints at all, it would be that the first act feels a bit long, and every now and then I found myself viewing the scene from a peculiar angle. I had just enough time to notice the awkwardness but the shot transitioned to something else before it was too uncomfortable. Particularly in the lunch scene, it’s hard to understand what everyone is saying at certain points. Between mumbling accents and increased levels of drunkenness all around the table, it was just like a real party where I sometimes just smile and nod along when I have no idea what people are saying.

Before Midnight is delightfully refreshing in the way that tender reality slaps can be, and I found it much more emotionally cathartic than the previous two installments, if only for the honesty in the story and maturity of the characters.

See it now at the Avon Cinema in Providence (if you’re in any way local relative to me!).