When Before Sunrise came out way back in 1995, I skipped it. Even though I was part of the film's so-called target demographic, it just didn't seem like my cup of tea. Two young actors saying clever things to each other for a whole movie? I gave it a pass.
In 2004, I gave Before Sunset a pass as well – at least for a while. But I kept hearing good things about it, so when it was playing at the local rep theater as a double feature with Before Sunrise, I finally caved in and took the woman I was dating – who would eventually be my wife – to see both films.
I could have kicked myself for waiting so long. I found Before Sunrise to be an artful, funny, and wholly romantic fairy tale – the kind of experience I only wished I had when I was in my twenties and traveling around Europe. (For those who forget the storyline, the film concerns a young American backpacker meeting a young French woman on a train, then daring her to disembark with him and spend the day together in Vienna before he flies home.) Watching the two characters – Jesse and Celine – reunite nine years later in Before Sunset was incredibly bittersweet, with the film exploring what it means to love and lose.
It makes for a great double feature. I highly endorse watching both films together.
Now another nine years have passed, and Before Midnight reveals that Jesse and Celine have stayed together since reuniting in Paris, where they now live with their two daughters. But at the end of a six-week vacation in Greece, they're at a decidedly bumpy stage in their relationship. Jesse feels guilty about not being more involved in his teenage son's life – he actually left his wife and child for Celine at the end of Before Sunset – and this guilt ignites a feature-length argument between the two stubborn lovers, one that centers on Celine's feminist-fueled refusal to play housewife, and Jesse's frantic backpedaling as Celine picks fight after fight.
Like the first two films, the joy of Before Midnight is in catching up with these two smart, witty, messy characters, and joining them for a good long walk and talk around a beautiful European landscape. Unlike the first two films, the stress of seeing them bicker over so many random, petty things drains the story of the longing and pathos that made this series so enjoyable in the first place. It may be honest, but it's not fun.
Before Midnight is still a pretty good movie – the sunlit Greek scenery is gorgeous, Graham Reynolds' score brings a welcome tenderness, and Hawke and Delpy are clearly fully invested in the characters with whom they have now lived for half their lives, which is touching. The actors, who wrote the script with Linklater, find lots of moments to reveal little details that make this couple's nine years together feel thoroughly fleshed out. Meanwhile, all the insight into men and women failing to understand each other may be familiar, but it's no less truthful for it.
Yet despite all the drama, there seems something trifling about this film. It's hard to tell just how much Jesse and Celine's relationship is really at stake, or if this is just another in a countless number of disagreements between these two individuals. I suspect the latter, and as a result, I never became particularly concerned about their future together.
Also, while the film may ask audience members to identify with both characters, Celine comes across as so relentlessly nuts – Jesse calls her "the mayor of crazy town" – that it's hard not to side with her poor beau, despite his own faults.
All that said, I'm glad that this series of films is still chugging along, and I do hope that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy reconvene in another nine years to give us Jesse and Celine at fifty. How can it be called anything else besides Before Noon?