Sometimes reunions with old friends can be a letdown. And sometimes they can exceed your expectations. Meeting up again with Jesse and Celine, the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight, was everything I could have possibly hoped for…and much, much more.
Don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago after my partner and I re-watched the first two films, I was eager to see what the next stage of Jesse and Celine’s relationship had in store. As it turns out, things aren’t great between them. They’ve been together since the last time we saw them, and now have a family of their own. On vacation in Greece, their chemistry, their gift for conversation, their charm and humor — all of that remains intact, deepened by age, maturity and life experience. They also, however, have a whole host of resentments, toward life and each other. It’s difficult to watch them say hurtful things to each other, to identify things about themselves and their partner that they are unhappy with and wish were different. Those carefree kids from Before Sunrise are teetering uncomfortably close to the edge of bitterness and discontent.
Before Midnight is a piece of art that recognizes love and relationships as the messy things that they are. For 110 minutes, these things are messy. Very much so. But despite that, I walked away from this brilliant movie ultimately uplifted, having witnessed two very different people complement and ultimately enhance each other’s lives through their love and commitment. They are not perfect. No couple is. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be together.
Unlike the first two films, where we watched these characters get to know each other over a finite amount of time, we are now watching two people who have a life together. They have history. They have baggage. That’s a fundamental difference between Before Midnight and the two movies that came before it. That fact creates a depth that wasn’t present — that didn’t need to be present — in the previous two installments. And Hawke, Delpy and co-writer/director Richard Linklater mine that depth magnificently. While the first two films almost felt like a fantasy, loaded with romantic idealism, Before Midnight is so authentic it almost hurts. It’s unsparing. And every moment counts. Every look, every touch, every joke, every insult — they each mean something, and they each feel real.
As my partner and I entered our second hour of discussing the film, we predicted that every couple who has seen it must be having the same kind of conversation we were. Debating the causes of Celine’s neuroses. Wondering if Jesse is selfish or simply adept at taking care of himself. Marveling at the unique vocabulary each couple uses to fight with each other. The fact that this relationship feels so specific, and also so universal, is a feat of filmmaking. The writing is astounding. The actors have never been better.
It’s only June, but I predict this might be the best movie of the year. It also may be one of the best movies ever made about relationships. Whether you’ve seen the first two films or not, whether you’re partnered or not, you must see this movie. It feels essential.
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