The first two films in the ongoing narrative of Jesse and Céline, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), offer variations on different romantic fantasies grounded in the age and social class of their characters. The first film depicts Jesse (Ethan Hawke, then an icon of Generation X) improbably meeting Céline (Julie Delpy) on the last night of his European adventure, with the two of them sharing a romantic night of conversation as they walked through the streets of Vienna. Before Sunset updates this fantasy, nine years later, when Céline shows up at Jesse’s book tour in Paris, allowing the two of them to rekindle their romance, escaping, if only for a few hours from the concerns of early adulthood: a loveless marriage for Jesse, career struggles and bad relationships for Céline.
But both films, even though they are structured by an awareness of passing time and of an imminent departure (in both films, Jesse has a plane to catch), seem to exist almost outside of time, at least in the sense of the everyday routine of going to work, maintaining a home, and caring for kids that most of us face. Both films involve hours of aimless walking and talking, first in Vienna and later in Paris. For the most part, they are not heading anywhere in particular; they just want to keep walking, keep moving, together. Thus, for just a few hours, Jesse and Céline escape from the demands, even if their preoccupations with parenting and career are constantly press down on them in Before Sunset, which ends with Jesse, mesmerized by Céline singing and strumming her guitar, choosing to linger in the fantasy, to try to keep it alive by making the choice to correct the mistake he made at the end of the first film when he left the possibility of a reunion with Céline almost completely to chance.
Before Midnight almost completely inverts the formula of the first two films, calling into question the construct of romantic love that Before Sunrise and Before Sunset had established. The result is a film that Mike Russell correctly describes as an “emotional evolution,” one that shows incredible maturity and emotional complexity in exploring the consequences of their decision to pursue a relationship built upon two improbably romantic interactions. Unlike the first two films, Jesse and Céline are now two fully-fledged adults, their lives intermingled in ways that are far from simple.
In addition to this thematic inversion, Before Midnight also inverts the plot formula of the first two films. Rather than ending with a potential departure, the film opens with one, in this case the departure of Jesse’s son, Hank, who is returning to the United States to live with his mother (Jesse’s ex-wife, never seen on screen) after spending the summer with Jesse and Céline in Greece. Although Hank cheerfully pledges that it had been the best summer of his life, Jesse clearly feels disconnected from his role as a father. Hank dutifully agrees to play soccer–even if it seems likely he’ll break that promise–but begs his dad to stay away from an upcoming piano recital because it will create too much stress. Jesse is self-conscious about his geographic distance from his son–they live an ocean apart–and his inability to serve as a fully adequate father figure. This sense of failure becomes even more acute when Hank calls Céline, twice, to check in at various points in his journey, not bothering to talk to his dad, prompting Jesse to propose the idea of asking Céline to move with him back to the U.S.
[Note: for those who want to view the film completely fresh, as I did, this might be a good place to stop] We also learn that Jesse and Céline have twin daughters, about eight years old, and the product of their first days together after their reunion, a detail that is introduced when Jesse gets in the car after dropping off Hank. Céline is also mulling taking a government job that would allow her to work on her pet environmental issues in a more official capacity. When she floats this news, she initially plays coy, acting as if she is just considering the job. When Jesse describes why she might not enjoy the work, she becomes defensive, and as the couple drives (rushing past some ancient ruins that they normally might have explored), Céline points to this as a pivotal moment in their relationship, one that (she imagines) will inevitably be the turning point that leads to their break up.
The rest of the film is structured around two extended scenes that allow Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (who are also credited as screenwriters) to explore the complexities of being in a committed relationship and the choices that people must make to maintain that commitment when the initial romance seems to fade. The first scene is a dinner party at the artists’ retreat where they have spent the last several months, Jesse basking in the adulation directed toward him by and older writer, while Céline silently stews at being away from her work and, in some sense, feeling the persistent gaze of being objectified into a romantic ideal in Jesse’s books (by the time of Before Midnight, he has written a sequel updating their story). While in Greece, the couple seem to have been living in separate realms. Jesse hangs with the men who praise or tease him about his writing. Céline works in the kitchen to prepare food (“filled with feta cheese–ugh!”) and care for their daughters. Céline also catches Jesse ogling the younger girlfriend of one of his friends, reinforcing insecurities about aging, worrying several times about her “fat French butt.” During the dinner, couples (and widows) of multiple generations meditate and reflect on the nature of romantic love and whether it is a fantasy, whether it can be maintained. Most of the people at the table are cynical, and given the tension on Jesse and Céline’s relationship, we can begin to see the film deepening its critique of its predecessors.
The second set piece is a scene in a hotel that friends have booked for Jesse and Céline. While the room is nice, it is distinctly modern, cold, and a little sterile, even with the nice touches–a complimentary bottle of wine and a couple’s massage–that have been provided. Unlike the romanticism of the first two films, the couple are grounded in the contemporary. Cell phone calls disrupt their conversation and their attempts to have sex and to rekindle their relationship. They also–most notably-no longer seem to be moving. After a brief walk together through the town, they remain in the room together, arguing and reintroducing old resentments about the sacrifices they have made for each other in seeking to make a life together. And what results is one of the most compelling and believable explorations of committed relationships I’ve seen on screen. If Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were two variations on a fantasy of courtship, Before Midnight reminds us that what happens next isn’t always “happily ever after.”
Like the first two films, the concluding scene of Before Midnight ends with a similar–if slightly altered–sense of ambiguity, asking again, where do we go from here? If the first two films offered a kind of romantic longing, Before Midnight takes us in a slightly different direction, asking how (or even if) these two people will continue to make a life together. In keeping with the other films, the question is built around a clever fantasy scenario cooked up by Jesse, one that asks Céline to imagine her 82-year-old self looking back on this moment and reflecting on the choices she made. It’s a moment that reminds us about the fragility of life and the contingency of all the choices we make. It also made me want to revisit these characters again and again for as long as Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke are around to make movies.