In a movie season better known for its gargantuan budgets and propulsive action, one of the best movies of the year has snuck its way into theaters this weekend. Before Midnight is the third collaboration between director/co-writer Richard Linklater and actors/co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, further continuing the story of our star-crossed duo Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke). The film picks up with our characters nine years down the road from 2004’s Before Sunset (which picked up another nine years down the road from 1995’s Before Sunrise) and finds the characters together and with twins no less, vacationing at an academic writer’s retreat in Greece. And once again we follow these characters through picturesque settings as they engage in earnest conversation and make observations (some wry, some searing) about life, love and happiness.
The conversation has matured in the passing decade, as conversations about where they hoped to be having turned towards reflections on the reality of their situation. There’s a more palpable tension between Celine and Jesse then has ever existed before in the films, unfurling in intense arguments that trade in on our long-gestating care for these characters and desire to see them find happiness in one another. Hawke and Delpy have the easygoing chemistry of actors who have worked intimately together before, and their performances are emotionally honest and impossible to deny – anyone who’s found themselves in a long-term relationship will certainly find something of themselves in their work. But all of the romantic yearning of the previous entries is still there, highlighted during a particularly lovely sequence set at dinner with Celine, Jesse and their vacation hosts.
Linklater doesn’t assert a forceful style on the movie; where a less skillful filmmaker might’ve reverted to their cinema verite bag of tricks to heighten the realism of the more caustic exchanges in the film, he allows the performances to do the heavy lifting and frames almost every scene cleanly and elegantly. Of course, having the picturesque Greek countryside at your disposal doesn’t hurt, but Linklater’s focus is always set on his characters, not creating business for the tourism industry. His work is simple while his characters are anything but.
I selfishly would love for this creative partnership to continue more frequently than every nine years, but cannot complain when the results are as soul-stirring and heartfelt as this is. Much like the previous two films, Before Midnight ends on an emotionally ambiguous note, allowing us to reunite with these characters somewhere down the line and see how their relationship and love for one another has evolved further over time. I sincerely look forward to being reacquainted with them again, but if Before Midnight is the final chapter of Celine and Jesse’s love story it’s a heart achingly wonderful one.