Before Midnight, the third film in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset series, finds Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke at their blistering, bickering best, in and around Paddy’s house.
by Tim Robey
From the Telegraph, first published 20 June 2013.
The last time we saw Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) together on screen, they were shooting the breeze in Paris, in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004), a sequel to his gorgeous Viennese brief encounter, Before Sunrise (1995). A plane was missed, but a vital connection was re-established, and Linklater had faith in this pair’s future, handing them one of the best, most romantic endings in the history of the movies.
Nine years later, the couple are living out the consequences of that decision, for good and bad, in Before Midnight. They’ve settled down in Paris, as the unmarried parents of twin girls, whose bobbing blonde locks could hardly fail to gladden the heart. We catch up with the family on holiday in the Peloponnese, where Jesse, fully established as a novelist, pitches ideas to friends, and Celine, an environmental activist whose latest wind-farm project has just been vetoed, ponders a potentially stressful career change.
The first half of the movie is mainly sweetness and Mediterranean light – there’s Greek salad at the dinner table, and bumper ensemble chats about what lasts in life and what doesn’t. Linklater has always been a garrulous sort of filmmaker, never one to cut short his characters’ windier musings, but in this early phase of the film he makes us ever so slightly nervous we’re in for a mid-level Woody Allen-style travelogue, with a yoghurty side dish of seasoned philosophising.
We needn’t worry; these hints of complacency are all grist to the eventual mill. Right from the start, there are rumblings of the things that have worked out less well for the lovers. Leaving his first wife for Celine meant Jesse more or less abandoned Hank, his son from that marriage, who’s now in his early teens and based in Chicago. Though Hank has joined Celine and Jesse for part of their trip, their adieu at Kalamata airport, where the film starts, is a typically poignant one for Jesse, since it involves sending his son, as Celine puts it, “back behind enemy lines”. Jesse sacrificed a lot to move to Europe, and quick-tempered Celine picks up, with nuclear sensitivity, on his yearning to be a better dad, along with all the resentments and retaliatory demands this might entail.
Hawke and Delpy, who are both credited on the script too, have never found co-stars to bounce off more nimbly or bring out richer nuances in their acting. As in the earlier films, all the best sequences here are long, snaking duologues – the difference being that Celine and Jesse now know each other inside out, and exactly which buttons to push. As a gift from friends, they get a night to themselves, and the movie’s tone shifts at the key moment when they’ve walked to a local village and the sun sets, as if inviting the real sequel to begin. There’s a long and brilliant scene in a hotel room, plotted like great theatre, in which foreplay gets interrupted by mild irritation, sarcasm becomes a full-on domestic row, and soon we’re at Defcon 1.
Where we might have expected a gentle or rueful coda, we get a battle of the sexes as blistering as the best of Tracy/Hepburn, and infinitely more frank. The pair take turns to be witheringly funny about each’s others foibles, delusions, and vast deficiencies, which only billow when this sort of combat draws them out. In a breath, Hawke can be magnificently caustic – just wait for his quip about Celine’s “agony in the trenches of the Sorbonne” – and a clumsy stirrer of the hornet’s nest. Delpy is a mistress of the half-joke with a whole artillery of grievances at her fingertips, and the emotional capacity to fire them all at once. The way men and women can trample on each other’s dreams, even without intent, is a brave subject for this movie to unpick, given the wispy, tender optimism of those dreams when Celine and Jesse last met, and indeed first met. Each film asks whether this generation’s most durable movie couple will make it – only now, they’re asking the same question of themselves.