Instructive Relationship Movie: Before Midnight

My review on The Philippine Star, July 12, 2013

It’s hard to watch Before Midnight while resisting the urge to take notes that will be useful in real life. Actually, it’s hard to watch Before Midnight, period.

It’s an excellent movie, of course: like the two previous films, it is beautifully shot, acted, directed. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, again co-writing the screenplay with director Richard Linklater, seduce us with its simplicity, making this feel like a long, bittersweet conversation rather than a script.

In 1995, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy collaborated on Before Sunrise; nine years later, in 2004, they came out with Before Sunset. Today, in 2013, we have Before Midnight.

It follows a day in the life of Jesse and Celine, as they spend time together in an old European city, as we have grown accustomed to seeing them. This time around, though, they are not meeting for the first time: they are on holiday in Greece with Jesse’s son from his previous marriage and their twin daughters. They have been together for almost a decade, and it shows.

I remember thinking in 2004, after seeing Before Sunset for the first time, that I hope they never make another movie: it was enough to introduce us to Jesse and Celine, to have them find each other, and leave them to live on in the minds of viewers. I wanted to keep them there in Paris, young, happy, talking and walking, with nowhere else they would rather be. I thought, perhaps correctly, that that was the purest happiness they could ever enjoy.

Before Midnight is messier, more painful, but deeper and perhaps more beautiful too. And because the trio have taken their time, waiting nine years between each installment, their story is informed by life itself. Jesse and Celine are growing old together because Linklater, Hawke and Delpy are too, and we along with them.

Even we recognize their old (annoying) habits, references to old stories, the telling of new ones. Jesse and Celine have each grown weary. Sometimes they wonder what happened to that person they met on a train all those years ago; sometimes they hate the fact that that person doesn’t seem to have grown up. They are no longer tiptoeing and trying to impress each other. Instead, gestures carry the weight of old wounds, burdened with meaning. This is the price we pay for knowing another person intimately: we can tell. Jesse and Celine know each other this way. And yet we find a tenderness there, a friendship, a partnership between two people who have seen the worst of each other and still decide to stay.

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In one poignant scene, Jesse and Celine sit on a small restaurant watching the sun setting over the hills: “Still there,” they say, as the light slowly disappears. “Still there. Still there. Still there. Gone.” They sit close together, side by side, but not face to face. The silence stings. They hold hands.

When you’re 23 you think the best thing that could happen to you is to meet a perfect, romantic stranger on a train, and in Before Sunrise you do. Later, when you’re 32 and have seen worse things, you wish you could experience that kind of magic again, and in Before Sunset you do. But what do you wish for at 41?

This is what Before Midnight is about. It is an essential film, going beyond the vast achievement of its predecessors, because it doesn’t just tickle us with the possibility of romance: it instructs us about commitment, about what it’s like to wish for something, someone, and have it come true. Before Midnight brings our romantic dreams here to the level of reality.

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