Before Midnight is the best installment in the series, but with luck, this won’t be the last we see of Jesse and Celine. See you in 2022!
In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (1995), twentysomethings Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a gruffly charming American, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a French beauty with a wily intellect, meet on a train headed to Vienna. They talk…talk…talk the night away, fall in love, and vow to reunite back in Vienna six months later. Cut to nine years later, 2004’s Before Sunset. Jesse and Celine never met in Vienna, but find each other again, this time in Paris. Their adult lives have advanced—Jesse is now married with a son, Hank, and Celine is an environmental activist. Despite being tethered to their new life pursuits, they find their electric attraction is as strong as ever…
…which brings us to Before Midnight, jumping ahead in the story another nine years. The couple—now middle-aged, living in Paris, and with adorable twin daughters—is on holiday in Greece. They’re as loquacious as ever, but their once burning passion is buckling under the weight of mid-life anxiety. Jesse, now divorced, is desperately (guiltily) trying to maintain a meaningful relationship with Hank, who still lives in Chicago with his mom. Jesse proposes to Celine that they move to the states to be closer to the boy, and Celine mistakes this as an order, a blatant disruption of her own life plans. They engage in venomous, cutting verbal warfare over the hypothetical move (hinting at a larger issue of digression), and their contentious energy threatens their future as a family.
The spat unfolds over the course of three acts, the first of which is a single awe-inspiringly long (17 minutes!) shot of the couple chatting on a leisurely drive through sun-baked Greece. Next is a bitterly revealing dinner with friends in which they discuss the nature, joys, and paradoxes of love. The grand finale, set in a seaside hotel room, is an ego-driven, vicious lovers’ quarrel that feels so real it’s scary. They’ve spent years with each other sharpening their skills as verbal pugilists, and now they’ve finally thrown the gloves off. It’s heartbreaking to see the two be so cruel. “I don’t think I love you anymore.” says Celine. The young, playful lovebirds on that train to Vienna feel like a distant, distant memory.
Delpy and Hawke work like a jazz duo, hitting every beat, every note with precision and impeccable timing (this is most impressive in the early 17-minute scene). Their speech patterns and conversational rhythm are startlingly true to life, and the crescendo of their final showdown is paced perfectly. The virtuosity on display is incredible. Linklater’s camera is deliberate and disciplined, filming space without occupying it. He captures the scenes efficiently, with a low shot-count (though he makes every shot count).
Before Midnight is unblemished and smooth-as-silk, flowing from one moment to the next like water. It’s a seamless experience. Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke explore the minutia of long-term commitment through characters with a history we’ve watched develop over years and years. On its own, the film may feel a little mean-spirited, but it works best when viewed in concert with its predecessors. The context of Jesse and Celine’s previous engagements is crucial to enjoyment. This is the definitive Gen-X love story.
The Before films aren’t showy, gimmicky or loud—they’re humble, honest, and true. They weren’t made for the wrong reasons—they didn’t make a ton of money and there are near decade-wide gaps in between them. They’re something of a film industry anomaly. The ballad of Jesse and Celine exists only because three artists wanted to tell a love story in their way, without compromises. Collectively, the films are an unprecedented, 18-year-long, certifiably brilliant work of art that’s a rare gem in the story of cinema. Before Midnight is the best installment in the series, but with luck, this won’t be the last we see of Jesse and Celine. See you in 2022!