If the Richard Linklater film Before Midnight is meant to complete his trilogy that began with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, its conclusion stands as more of question mark than a period. Still, one is grateful for the ambiguity because the viewer has the distinct impression – indeed, wish – that Linklater and his characters, Celine and Jesse, will return in another nine years and that their intertwined lives and love are, in fact, a work in progress.
The married couple, played with brilliant openness and deft candor by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, are now in their forties. Having met on a train bound for Vienna eighteen years ago, they precipitously fell in love and embarked on a nearly two decade odyssey that has included Jesse’s acrimonious divorce from his first wife, his marriage to Celine, the birth of their twin daughters, and the international success of his novels. Before Midnight opens with Jesse’s bidding goodbye to his fourteen year-old son, Hank, as he puts him on a plane back to Chicago, and then resuming his Greek summer vacation with Celine and their twins. In the course of the film, he and Celine visit with old friends at Patrick’s villa and attempt a romantic getaway at a local resort hotel.
But the film’s plot is incidental. Like Chekhov’s dramas, it is character and dialogue which drive the story. The screenplay by Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke based on the original characters created by the director and Kim Krizan, is a two-hour series of soliloquies and dialogues performed as the characters engage in daily activities like driving, walking, cooking, eating, and lovemaking. The chemistry between Hawke and Delpy ignites the screen. So, too, does the naturalness of their conversation which owes itself to the actors’ improvisational skills and to the conspiratorial camera work of director Linklater and his cinematographer, Christos Voudouris, who manage to avoid the self-consciousness of cinema verité and yet remain intimate and spontaneous. That the script could play equally well on the stage does not diminish the viewer’s pleasure in the beautiful Greek Peloponneses as a backdrop. In fact, the ancient setting with all its storied references lends a mythic dimension to the various couples’ marriages. For Before Midnight is not only a film about attraction and love (as the previous two are), but it is primarily about the mysterious, torturous, and irresistible bonds of marriage.
At mid-life after eighteen years together, Jesse and Celine spend virtually the entire two hours sparring verbally – matching wits with the panache of Molière’s characters and hurling wounding barbs with the skill of Albee’s. They bicker, advance, retreat, injure, and succor each other as can only adversaries who know each other entirely and who ultimately love each other no matter what else happens. We feel the accumulation of hurts and humiliations, the impact of momentous past choices, the frustration of hopes dashed and futures rendered uncertain. Yet, all the while, we feel the undercurrent of their love and commitment. Despite their efforts to resist or rewrite its course, these two separate beings share a destiny that makes them one.
While Jesse and Celine’s relationship is the central focus of the film, their alliance is complemented by those of their friends: the surprisingly wise and refreshingly modern young couple Anna (Ariana Labed) and Achilleas (Yiannis Papadopoulos), by their contemporaries Stefanos (Panos Koronis) and Ariadni (Athina Rachel Tsangari), who share a frank and earthy bond, and by the widowed Natalia (Xenia Kalogeropoulou), who delivers a touching tribute to long-lasting love and its loss as she recalls her late husband and concludes that the human destiny is merely to pass through life without permanence, seizing only the elusive moment.
It is in these soliloquies and in the stirring repartee of the principals that the film penetrates with dazzling insight the secrets of the human heart and pays homage to the life-affirming impulse of love.