They first met on a Vienna-bound train in 1994. What began as a friendly hello shape-shifted into something much more potent after just a few moments of small talk — a connection was made, an unbreakable link suddenly forming to change both their lives forever. On that fateful day, conversation lasted from afternoon to morning, unstoppable and unfiltered; we’d expect them to be together forever. But in those few hours, covered in 1995’s Before Sunrise, a bittersweet ending is what’s in store. They don’t see each other again for another nine years.
Our hearts are broken in 2004’s Before Sunset, where we discover that the planned reunion, supposed to take place six months after that initial meeting, never happened, thanks to family tragedy on one of their parts. But all is forgiven when the chatter between them proves to be as intimate as ever, especially so when the conclusion suggests that, after nearly a decade apart, letting go is no longer an option: they’re going to stay united.
I'm speaking of Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American author, and Céline (Julie Delpy), a French environmentalist, star-crossed lovers whose romance has captured the attention of patient audiences for the last twenty years. They’ve become very much a part of my cinematic heart in these last few weeks — I was merely planning to watch Before Sunrise, only to get wrapped up in the relationship of the duo like a hungry voyeur and view the next two in the trilogy like some stan. But I feel a little wiser, a little more perceptive, grateful for their insistence to create as real of a movie romance as there could possibly be.
And so Before Midnight shows the inevitable — it’s the film where not everything can be so warm and fanciful, where the characters are nearing middle-age, having doubts about what they’ve come to know about themselves, where careers and family dynamics are clashing with brute force. We are shocked to find that Jesse and Céline are now married, presumably getting hitched shortly after the events in Before Sunset. They’re now the parents of beautiful twin girls (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior), living in France and living their dreams. Jesse’s son from his first marriage (Seamus Fitzpatrick) has grown into a pre-teen and is staying with his mother in America, too young to understand that the physical distance between him and his father is due to geography and severed romantic ties, not because of a lack of love.
We can quickly tell Before Midnight isn’t going to bear the same sweetness as its predecessors when Jesse, offhandedly, suggests that the family move to Chicago to be closer to his son soon after Céline tells him of a great career opportunity. On vacation in Greece for the summer, relaxation soon turns angsty, as both start unleashing old marital frustrations after one too many disagreements. To our surprise, it is the first in the series to show the couple not getting along as harmoniously as they have in the past — but that’s part of the reason why it’s so courageous, so visceral, and, ultimately, so moving.
The Before … series has always floated high above the celluloid clouds for their ability to represent romance in the most realistic way one can in the movies, and, despite the fact that we’d like Jesse and Céline to always be happy in each other’s arms, Before Midnight is perhaps the finest moment in the trilogy (though its melancholy doesn’t make it my personal favorite). After a decade of marriage, it’s only healthy that the parties to the union begin having doubts, and the film displays this trend with the same nonchalant manner of the previous two movies. We get those enticing moments of Jesse and Céline piquantly conversing like before, but we also are forced to sit through a climactic, brutal argument, a new feature as engrossing as it is a reminder of the vast acting talents of Hawke and Delpy.
And it takes Richard Linklater, the indie movie industry’s secret weapon, back to his roots, as Before Sunrise was one of his first films and has since peppered his filmography like a case of chicken pox that mysteriously keeps reappearing. It’s his wisest entry in the franchise, no revelation considering how most of his filmography consists of stories with a well-tuned understanding of human nature. As proven by 2014’s Boyhood, he’s a filmmaker who uses the reality of time as a gateway for dramatic possibility. The Before … pictures are, essentially, one epic of a romantic film. We can only hope that sequels keep reappearing in theaters every nine years, until Jesse and Céline are in the Amour stage of their marriage.
For being so raw most of the time, Before Midnight, thankfully, ends on a note that causes one to think that things might not end so badly after all. We wouldn’t want things to anyway, as Jesse and Céline are soulmates, not just people who get along better than most. Now completed (at least until 2022, when we might revisit these characters next), I can now confidently say that the Before … series makes for my own personal favorite romantic film of all time. I’ll take Audrey and Gregory, Kate and Cary, any day, but Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are far from the norm and are all the more interesting for it. I won’t get fooled again by a Hollywood fling — I’ve seen the real thing, and I won't be turning back. A-