Before Midnight is the third installment in director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s series of films following two characters, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy), over what is now eighteen years. I saw the second installment, Before Sunset, in theaters when I was 17, and I was utterly blown away. I’d never been so immersed or transported by a film. I remember feeling so connected to the character of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) that when the camera would cut to his face, I was jarred by how wrong it felt to be seeing the face of the character through whose eyes I was seeing the film. I didn’t see the first installment, Before Sunrise, until a few years later, and I continue to believe what I thought then: which film you prefer says an awful lot about how you approach love and think about romance. I prefer Sunset by several country miles; draw your own conclusions.
Over the past nine years, my affection for Sunset has remained strong, though I no longer feel that Jesse speaks the words of my soul (and thank God for that, he’s half a nut). At times I’ve identified more with Celine (Julie Delpy), at times with Jesse. As I’ve aged, my view of the film has changed, but it remains one of those pieces of media that rescripted my psyche at a cellular level. And so last night, waiting to see Before Midnight, I found myself surprisingly nervous. I couldn’t focus on anything. I felt as though I was about to visit old friends I hadn’t spoken to in years; what if we didn’t get along anymore?
Having seen it, I maintain, to a degree greater than I’ve experienced with other movies, that one’s response to these films is as much about oneself, one’s experience and trajectory and personal bugaboos, as it is about the films themselves. My response to Before Midnight is driven as much by my own feelings about human relationships as it by the film’s structural elements. So let’s set the scene: we’re in Greece with Jesse, Celine, and their ridiculously beautiful twin daughters on some sort of writers’ retreat (the nature of the trip is never totally clear). They’ve been together since the end of Sunset – the evolution of their relationship is revealed as the film progresses – and for one of their last nights in Greece, their friends have purchased for them a hotel room.
The film starts, however, at the airport with Jesse and his son Hank. This is by far one of its best moves, both narratively and affectively. Jesse’s love for his four-year-old son is painfully clear in Sunset, and one of my greatest anxieties going into Midnight (yes, I had anxieties about this film, that’s how many feelings I was having) was how they’d handle that situation. On this count, I had nothing to worry about. Jesse’s love for his son and concern for his well-being is a major theme in Midnight in a way that rings very true and brought me closer to Jesse instead of pushing me farther away. Hawke, aging like a fine wine, wears pain well on his mile-high cheekbones. The recurring theme of Hank’s welfare provides a major new area of exploration for Jesse and Celine, and gives their conversation an emotional anchor.
We’re first alone with Jesse and Celine about forty-five minutes into the film, as they walk to the hotel, and they note that they haven’t been alone together in longer than either of them can remember. Their dynamic is familiar to us from Sunrise and Sunset, but I found it too familiar. Their conversation doesn’t wear the long familiarity their characters are now supposed to have; it feels like one they could have had in Sunset, nine years ago. This was a recurring theme for me as the film went on: in many ways, it feels like a recapitulation of Sunset with smaller stakes. Neither Jesse nor Celine seems to have grown much in nine years. On a personal level, I was disappointed by this in the same way I would be if I saw an old friend after nine years and they hadn’t grown. Personal growth is perhaps my most deeply held value, and I find its absence upsetting and frustrating. But I think this is more than a personal issue, it’s a narrative one. The characters have new problems, but they bring nothing new of themselves to the table. As a viewer, I kept waiting to learn something new, to see something that would warrant a new film, and I didn’t.
At the same time, those nine years of togetherness serve as an impediment to connection for the viewer. In both Sunrise and Sunset, we experience the jolt of connection, the anticipation, the shock of reconnection in real time with Jesse and Celine. We get to know them as they get to know each other, we re-meet them as they re-meet each other, and we fall in love with them as they do with each other. That immediacy is one of the films’ greatest assets, permitting an incredible level of immersion. Midnight places nine years between Jesse and Celine and the viewer. No longer do we participate in their lives; we watch and listen to them. And because we don’t know – for example – how they parent their daughters, how they arrange their time, how they divide up household chores, how they make decisions together (or separately), we can’t really know what we’re hearing. It winds up feeling like sitting next to the world’s most argumentative couple on the subway: you can listen, and you can assess, but you don’t actually know what you’re talking about.
One could argue, I’m sure, that this is the nature of long relationships, particularly ones with children: the day-to-day becomes so important that fights get saved up until they’re distorted beyond sense, the partner relationship suffers, and one’s relationship with oneself is tabled indefinitely. That may be true of many relationships, but static of that kind doesn’t make for particularly exciting viewing. Insofar as it’s a film about what happens in long relationships, that ground has been covered by others more skilfully, as in The Kids Are Alright and Shall We Dance? Insofar as it’s a check-in with characters we know and love and missed, all we know now is that they haven’t changed.
I know the level of anticipation I brought to Midnight was unfair. In addition to the intense personal importance it has to me, Sunset has one of the most perfect endings of all time. After wandering Paris all day, fighting and connecting and being upset and being alive, Jesse and Celine go back to her apartment as Jesse’s airplane boarding time gets closer and closer. She puts on Nina Simone, and while she’s making tea and puttering, she turns towards him and begins to do an impression of the late chanteuse, hips wiggling and lips pursed, and she says, in a deep, husky voice, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” And Jesse just grins up at her and says, “I know.” Cut to black. The sweet anticipation and uncertainty of that ending floats you out of the theater, and by definition, making a third installment puts to rest that tension – so it needed to deliver something powerful enough to be worth it. That it didn’t isn’t necessarily problematic in and of itself. What pushes me to say that this isn’t a success irrespective of my ludicrously high hopes is that I don’t think it stands up on its own terms: it doesn’t take us to enough new places to justify its existence, and the stakes never feel as high as they’d need to be to compensate. I missed Jesse and Celine. I was happy to see them again. But if there’s a next time, I hope they come ready to play.