Just about everyone over a certain age has been there: that moment when you realize your long-term relationship has gradually evolved into something that’s less about romance and more about the practical side of everyday life. Before Midnight, the third in series of conversation-based films about Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), offers what may be the most realistic depiction of a mature love relationship ever committed to film. Simmering resentments, circular arguments, and the nagging sense that a single push in the wrong direction might lead to an eventual breakup — these are the difficult realities found in director Richard Linklater’s movie. It’s not always easy to watch, but it has an air of discovered truth that elevates it to something that looks a lot like art.
In the series’ first film, Before Sunrise (1995), twenty-somethings Jesse and Celine meet on a train and spend a single romantic evening walking and talking in Vienna before their lives require them to part ways. In their thirties, the star-crossed lovers finally meet again and enjoy a day together wandering Paris in Before Sunset (2004) after Jesse writes a best-selling book about that fateful first night and Celine turns up at a reading. In Before Midnight, the fortyish couple brings their young daughters to Greece. The intensely intimate conversation of the first two films has given way to comfortable familiarity. In the first of the film’s three long conversations — presented in slightly condensed real time and mostly without edits — Jesse plants a seed of discontent by hinting that he wants the family to leave Paris and move back to the States so they can be near his adolescent son from his first marriage. Later on, friends watch the kids and give the couple a gift of another romantic evening alone together. But time and circumstance have taken their toll on Jesse and Celine.
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Over the course of three movies, the principals have developed a unique way of working that gives the films a special pedigree. The screenplays for both Before Sunset and Before Midnight are credited to Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, who get together every seven or eight years to imagine what happens to Jesse and Celine at a new stage in their lives. It’s like a band reuniting after lots of solo projects to make another record and tour — except that the new stuff is better than the old. A single false note here might cause an entire 30-minute scene to collapse. Thanks to natural performances from both Hawke and Delpy, that danger never seems real. The trio isn’t saying whether it will continue to chronicle the lives of these characters into the future. But the smart money says we’ll be checking in again with Jesse and Celine in 2022.