Part of the appeal of peeking into the lives of Jesse and Celine, the lovestruck but sensible couple at the heart of Richard Linklater’s Before movies, is discovering what’s happened to them since we last saw them onscreen. Theirs is an extended love affair shaped by time constraints. In Before Sunrise, they met for the first time on a train heading to Vienna, where they spent a magical night getting to know each other before Jesse, a budding author, headed back to the States. Nine years later, Before Sunset explored what happened when they reconnected in Paris, where he gave a book reading of a novel inspired by that initial encounter.
“Baby, you are going to miss that plane,” Celine purred to a bewitched Jesse, who was scheduled to fly out of France that same day but opted to spend the day with the one that got away.
“I know,” he replied. And as Celine danced to a Nina Simone song to a smiling audience of one in her cozy apartment, Linklater faded to black, an exquisitely elliptical ending to a touching Gen X romance.
So what happened next? Stop reading this review if you want to go into Before Midnight, the third chapter in the lives of the beloved characters portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, sight unseen. Actually, avoid all promotional materials for this movie, which ruin the joy of finding out for ourselves what transpired in the interval between Sunset and Midnight.
Linklater’s in no hurry to get viewers up to speed. The first scene in Before Midnight takes place at the Kalamata Airport in the Peloponnese region of Greece. Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), an American teen, prepares to return to the States. His overattentive dad is making sure he has everything he needs for his flight home. Linklater cuts to Hawke, his face slightly more wrinkled than we remember, and what ensues is an awkward glimpse at a divorced parent’s attempt to reach out to a child he hardly knows, even though they just spent a sizable chunk of their summer together. Like the movie that follows, the scene is acutely aware of how the most seemingly stable relationships can reach a precarious state in a short time span.
Hank, as it turns out, is the son Jesse had with his first wife, who, by all accounts, is not the nicest person. Jesse approaches a car in front of the airport, and (SPOILER ALERT), there’s Celine waiting for him, with two twin girls asleep in the back seat. Yes, Jesse and Celine are still together, and yes, those are their daughters. But where are the wedding rings? Like Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn – or Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins before they called it quits – the charismatic leads have chosen to remain together without exchanging vows. They’re reaching the end of their time in southern Greece, which they have spent at an idyllic villa owned by an older writer friend of Jesse’s.
Fissures in their relationship are subtly introduced at first, such as when Jesse advises Celine not to take a job that would mean a huge leap for her career-wise, just because she dislikes the man who would be her new boss. A married couple with whom they’re staying have given them a one-night stay at a local hotel and have agreed to take care of their daughters while they spend some quality time alone. Celine’s not too crazy about the idea. But Linklater’s got the gift of gab, and before he gets down to business, his characters talk. And talk. And then talk some more. Their rambling musings, which dwell upon subjects as varied as aging, parenting and advancements in technology, allow us to hang out with the couple, catch up with them on matters both trivial and substantial. Linklater has never lost sight that Before Sunrise was a romance that never relied on past generations’ templates of what a love story should be. Gen X’ers like myself took one look at Jesse and Celine’s transitory connection and instantly recognized it as our own, and uniquely ours.
As his characters age, what once felt modern and new now comes across as emblematic of our specific generation. In the not-too-distant future it will be time for Hank and the twins to experience their own romantic voyages, and in introducing these notions, Linklater is laying the groundwork for what could be an enduring series of films, akin to Michael Apted’s Up films. That all depends, of course, on whether the filmmaker and his two stars, who collaborated on the screenplay like they did in Before Sunset, wish to continue revisiting these characters.
So how do Jesse and Celine spend the day that Linklater chronicles in Before Midnight? They do some sightseeing, join their friends for a chatty lunch, and engage in some of that Linklater-ish walking and talking. Fans of the movies will know what I’m talking about. We follow the thread of Jesse and Celine’s idle chatter, and the director seamlessly cuts to a shot of their backs, then back to a frontal shot, without missing a beat in their conversation. In sharp contrast to Before Sunset against-the-clock, faux-real-time structure, Midnight opts for more laid-back pacing, the better to emulate the film’s serene, picturesque setting. Celine knows that if they’re placed in close quarters by themselves, they’ll have to address the elephant in the room, and Linklater gradually builds to their hotel room showdown. Intimacy gives way to claustrophobia as Linklater steadily turns the screws on his longtime lovers. That extended sequence, which has the stagy feel of a one-act play that recalls Linklater’s Tape, is alternately painful and illuminating. Jesse and Celine careen back and forth between compassion and bitterness, often in the same sentence. It’s a high-wire act both actors navigate with lived-in aplomb.
And as Before Midnight draws to its will-they-or-won’t-they conclusion, you begin to wonder whether Linklater will break his cardinal rule: refusing to reveal Jesse and Celine’s relationship status before the final shot of the film. I will leave that up to you, dear viewer, to find out for yourself. I would have probably cut to black one minute before Linklater does, but it’s safe to say most of you experienced that moment of insecurity he lingers on as he bids adieu to his troubled, devoted twosome. Unlike the ending of Before Sunset, it’s messy and imperfect, but it nevertheless rings true. It is unfathomable to me to suggest, as other critics have, that it’s for the best to end the series here. If anything, one senses the next nine years will bring tons of life experience from which to draw. See you guys in 2022. You’ll be missed.
Not in a romantic mood this weekend? Then saunter over to the Miami Beach Cinematheque for your last chance to catch No, Pablo Larraín’s absorbing, fact-based Chilean chronicle of the ad campaign that ultimately took out Augusto Pinochet from government, on the big screen. Shot with Sony video cameras to uncannily evoke that muddy, late-80s look of the period, the Oscar-nominated release, which I reviewed earlier this spring, stars Gael García Bernal as the ad executive who thinks out of the box in order to ensure his side – the one supporting Pinochet’s removal from office – emerges triumphant. Larraín’s herky-jerky brand of neo-neorealism occasionally yields moments of unassuming beauty, making No, at least for me, an accessible arthouse release that deserved to find a larger audience.
No starts Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com). That same day, Before Midnight opens at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com), AMC Sunset Place and Regal Cinemas South Beach.