The unfulfilled promise of something wonderful is hard to bear. Embracing the beginning of something you’ve always wanted but never dreamed you would have is frightening. Ending the same is heartbreaking. Perhaps the most difficult thing on this earth, though, is to maintain and keep healthy something long past the point at which the thrill has worn off and the fear of the end has begun to take hold.
Throughout two other films we have watched the evolution of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as people, and cheered them on as lovers. As individual people they evolved into perfect complimentary pieces, ideally suited to bring out the wonder and excitement in one another. Their genuine joy and curiosity in one another was so palpable that the thought of seeing them after nine years of knowing one another was both thrilling and terrifying.
After all, how could any couple hope to sustain that kind of energy and optimism over the course of a relationship?
The answer, you seem to posit, is that you cannot. When we meet Jesse and Celine anew they have been together since the events of Before Sunset. They are on vacation in Greece with a group of artists and writers that Jesse met thanks to his success as a novelist. It is nearing the end of the summer, and Hank, Jesse’s son from his previous marriage, has just boarded a plane for America after telling his father that it would be best if he didn’t visit. The divorce was so acrimonious that Hank doesn’t want to have to endure his mother’s anger and stress should Jesse appear.
This is the catalyst for the rest of your story, a series of cascading disasters in conversation that force Jesse and Celine to confront all of the aspects of their relationship that they might wish to change. Celine is losing faith in her ability to enact fundamental change through her social activism, and is pondering a job in government. Jesse wants to be more a presence in Hank’s life, which would involve a hypothetical move to Chicago, a move which would put a damper on her ambitions.
Of course there is so much more to talk about than just these present things. Any couple who has ever been in an argument knows that the inciting topic of the argument rarely remains the focus of the argument. There are whole histories to be drawn on, both collaborative and independent, with which to create new and devastating weapons. It is harrowing and painful to endure, and to watch, but the momentum of such moments is intoxicating. Each side gets wound up in their distinct sense of rightness and outrage and the avalanche of adrenaline that comes with the fight.
What you do, Before Midnight, that many similar films of this vein fail to do, is ground all of the fighting and anger and uncertainty in the elemental love of the two characters. These aren’t people who are aching to harm one another because of any real love loss or hatred. They are two people, deeply in love and desirous of one another’s company, who allow their fear and their anxiety to drive them to keep talking long past the point that they should. Their attacks are only framed as such because they cannot help but feel the need to defend themselves against the perceived slights of their partner. The pitch rises, the conflict escalates, and before long the fear of losing love or of being left behind drives them to preemptive assumptions and miscommunicated assertions.
Most compelling, however, is the way in which their conflicting histories and views of love inform their actions. Jesse, who is surrounded by examples of enduring love, refuses to let his indiscretions or his failings be used against him as a kind of proof of apathy. Celine, meanwhile, allows her fundamental distrust to color her perceptions of their lives and their place in the eyes of one another.
This is a delicate and complicated matter to portray, especially in the space of a single day, but your actors/writers and writer/director (Richard Linklater) do a fantastic job of making sure each element is explicated naturally and fully. Not having been able to see the events of the last 9 years we only have the way in which the characters speak about them, and their emotional reactions to the same, to guide us. There is a history and truth to everything they say and do, and the rawness of their acts is unbelievably faithful to life.
Very few movies even attempt the level of fidelity and verisimilitude that you hoped to achieve, Before Midnight, and an even small number even come close to pulling it off. You do, and this makes you a surprisingly and affectingly rare gem of a film.
With unambiguous ardor,
Brian J. Roan