Before Midnight – Three writers and one of the best couples in cinema. (SFF Film Review)
Almost impossibly against the odds, Before Midnight is as good, if not better than its predecessors. Linklater made the clever move of including Delpy and Hawke in on the collaboration for Before Sunset and this move has provided us with one of the most endearing couples in cinema history. Much has been said about July Delpy’s portrayal of Celine and it’s all worthy praise. The development of her character over time is subtly and meticulously wrought, making her a little more cynical as she gets older, but also softer than the overly bright chatty activist she was when she was young. Ethan Hawke locks Jesse in time, the man-boy still playing off the battle between macho and responsibility, but he is endearing and warm and while his childishness grates, it is, unfortunately, entirely believable. Let’s just say, as much as I like Ethan Hawke (and I really do) and he is better here than anywhere else, I would never date Jesse. But then, as much as I adore Julie Delpy, I wouldn’t want to be Celine’s friend either; and that’s part of what makes this all so special. The characters themselves are not necessarily always likable, but their honest portrayal of their own struggles in life makes us warm to the humanity in them.
And popping in every nine years helps keep them endearing too of course.
I won’t go through the plot here, except to say that it calls up Rossilini’s Journey to Italy, a film referenced directly in Before Midnight. Relationships are funny. They can be filled with seething resentments, and yet be saved by the slightest of turns of a friendly card, and then carry on through the resentments. Linklater wants to examine this idea, and with Delpy and Hawke assisting with the concise and witty dialogue, the examination is allowed to come to the fore.
The first time Celine and Jesse met in Before Sunrise, they were on a train. Celine is sitting alone, trying to read a book. She is constantly interrupted because the couple next to her are fighting so loudly and openly she is forced to stand and take another seat. She moves deeper into the carriage and takes a place opposite the aisle to Jesse. The two begin to notice each other. Soon the arguing couple stand and move down the train, their fight intruding on everyone, what they have at stake making others oblivious.
The very first thing Celine says to Jesse when they finally speak is:
C: Have you ever heard that, as couples get older they lose their ability to hear each other?
C: Well, supposedly, men lose their ability to hear higher pitched sounds, and women eventually lose hearing in the low end. I guess they sort of nullify each other.
J: I guess. Natures way of allowing couples to grow old together without killing each other.
This becomes important and interesting in Before Midnight, because when we think of Celine and Jesse the central question is, can romantic love last? All three writers know this is the question, and all three writers bring their essential take via their characters in the case of Delpy and Hawke and via the film in the case of Linklater.
For Hawke’s Jesse, who has become a fairly famous writer by selling two novels, the first an account of the first meeting with Celine called ‘This Time’ and the second an account of the second meeting in Paris called ‘That Time’, the entire relationship is romantically entwined with their kismet style romance. He was the one who turned up at the allocated meeting place (Celine had to attend her grandmothers funeral otherwise she would have been there) and he then had to turn away and build a life out of the lack of fulfillment of that moment. He left a wife he didn’t love and a child he adored to be with Celine at the end of Before Sunset with one of the best last lines in a movie ever: “I know”. For Jesse, the love is destiny. The choice has been made. Now you take each day as it comes. If you make mistakes, she deals with it.
For Delpy’s Celine, its a very different experience. She wasn’t able to make the meeting six months after the first spark of love between them, so she pragmatically removed it from her mind. It wasn’t until she read Jesse’s book that the feelings were rekindled and she was able to see that her life had been soulless since she gave her heart to him all those years earlier. Celine sees the world as a bleak place, polluted, sexist, and cruel. Like a ‘man’, Jesse presents her with his faults and expects absolution from her love. Like a ‘woman’ she forgives but never forgets. There is a rather painful scene when couples are sitting around a table discussing love and relationships. The women are complaining about the behaviors of their men folk, and the men are shrugging their shoulders and saying if this is what men are, why can’t you accept it. Of course, women do accept it, all the world over, but what they long for is to not have to be presented with the faults like a priest, but to see him working at removing them. Celine lives with the hope, daily that Jesse will take responsibility like she is. But she knows, that will never happen.
For Linklater, the examination lies around the power of the spark to endure through all these miscommunications, these seething unmet expectations and the complicated realities of daily life when couples live together. He wants to see if that magic can keep them strong. In this way he is like Jesse, but in his practical acceptance of the enormity of life and the problems associated he is like Celine. In the parent film, Journey to Italy, the couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) actually decide they will divorce while they are on their terrible holiday that dissolves into a horror fight. It’s only when they are caught up in a religious procession that they remember their love for each other. Linklater has Jesse try to create that moment, but breaking through Celine’s shell won’t be easy, and Linklater wants this couple to do it without God and without the formal institution of marriage. In other words, is the spark enough? Is the spark real?
In Before Midnight, when Jesse is about to get off the train, and he invites Celine to walk the streets with him, he says the following:
Jump ahead ten or twenty years. And your married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have. you know? You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them. right? Well I’m one of those guys. That’s me. You know, so think of this as time travel. From then to now. To find out what you’re missing out on.
Isn’t interesting that now he is the husband when he was the guy? Jesse will use the same trick that distinguished him as separate from her husband to try to save the relationship. She giggled and leaps off the train with him eighteen years ago. He thinks it’s his charm she can’t resist. She knows he thinks that, and wonders how long she will have to keep making him think his charm is irresistible. In the end, perhaps Jesse is right, not about himself, but about what goes on between them. Linklater has a much greater optimism than his characters here, and for me it was most welcome. When a relationship is completely stripped bare and presented at its most naked, what is it? Before Midnight has taken one of the most intelligently romantic couples and stretched it to this place.