Would the ‘Before’ series be as vital if we didn’t feel at every single second that there was an invisible force of creative kismet between Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy? Because as I think about why it is we love these films so much, I come back to the collaborative connection between this trio and that revisiting Jesse and Celine has always felt like something that was meant to be. These characters are in their very bones and as we watch Hawke and Delpy perform what they have collectively written with Linklater, it’s clear that something special is happening onscreen. Something embedded between these two actors and the fact that it feels that they legitimately live Jesse and Celine as they act before the cameras.
Before Midnight is bittersweet to its core. The romanticism of the first two films is almost entirely cut down to reveal a long-developed dynamic at first simmering and then bracing. We catch them at a make-it-or-break-it moment. This is about a relationship riddled with past baggage. This is about the moment in a relationship when you fully understand that this idea of ‘sharing a life’ together actually doesn’t exist. Why? Because you may be sharing a life but experiences are always going to be disparate in some fashion. That crevice can fill up with negative unspoken dissonance. And at some point you come to blows, and the incomparable intimacy you share with a person is used by each to target the other’s weaknesses, faults, failures. As Jesse and Celine unabashedly and often cruelly unload their burdens onto each other, looking however they can to get a leg up, we see these characters in a light we never hoped we would. Their connection is still unchallenged and genuine. On the surface, life is going well for them. But there’s a lot boiling underneath and they’ve let it stew for a mite too long.
Before Midnight takes the unstructured conversational elements we love so much about the first two and adds the specificity of what a relationship between the two actually turned out to be. Each major scene contributes something essential; in this way, as well as the way those pieces are used to build to something, it feels more like a story than the first two. That master-shot in the car at the film’s start is something to behold and it just gets better from there. Linklater is always unobtrusive; he knows exactly when to have blocking, when to keep his distance and when to cut close. His unobtrusiveness helps the audience conversely feel obtrusive as things get ugly. We get to see the negatives to Jesse and Celine’s positives; the passive-aggressiveness, the blame game, all of it. We understand where both are coming from, why both are fed up with the other but also, and crucially I might add, why they should ultimately be able to get through this.
The final minutes are edge-of-your-seat stuff. You deeply feel what’s been said. You feel and are desperately moved by that last ditch effort. Everything’s riding on it. In that moment the stakes become higher than anything I’m likely to see in a film this year. And it exists just between two people. But not just two people; between Jesse and Celine. Before Midnight is a thing of bittersweet majesty. It may double back on most of the romanticism of Sunrise and Sunset, but goodness me the disillusionment with a silver lining is worth it.