You can't get the majority of people to agree on much of anything, but nearly everyone has some sort of passionate reaction to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Many, and this includes me, consider those pair of indie romances the standard by which all films on passionate love are measured. Rich, vital, funny, and superbly written, the ongoing saga of would-be lovers Jesse(Ethan Hawke) and Celine(Julie Delpy) have kept us enthralled for nearly twenty years. But with the third installment, Before Midnight, shot on the sly last summer, the duo and Richard Linklater are faced with new challenges brought on by time, technology, and incredibly high expectations.
If you've bothered to read this far, then it's probably safe to say you have some investment in Jesse and Celine's fate, so only proceed if it's ok to have 2004's cliffhanger conclusion spoiled.
It's been another nine years between films, and if so much has changed in the meantime, the unparalleled chemistry between Hawke and Delpy hasn't slipped even a little. They may be older, a bit wider, and certainly more wrinkled, but their performances are nothing less than natural throughout. The story begins simply in an airport, as Jesse prepares to send his son Henry back home to his now ex-wife in Chicago after a summer in Greece. Henry informs him that it's been the greatest summer of his life, which breaks Jesse's heart having to send his son away again. We learn fairly quickly that Jesse did indeed miss his flight, choosing to stay with Celine in France, and the two are now the parents of twin daughters.
There's a lot more to the story than that, which we learn casually in an incredible 20-minute single-shot sequence while they're driving to a friend's home in southern Greece. These events are revealed offhand and without fanfare, they are merely aspects of a life lived organically interwoven into the conversation of two people who know one another inside and out. On that drive we learn that the responsibilities and pressures of parenthood haven't dampened their intellectual spirit or ability to converse, it's merely changed the parameters. They argue over their worth as parents, in particular Jesse's desire to be a fixture in Henry's life, which could take them all out of Paris and ruin Celine's chance at her dream job. The discussions they have, often contentious and passionate, are more than just philosophical or self-serving. They have real impact on their entire family unit, which gives the film considerably more weight than the others.
Divided into what is essentially a three act play, the middle portion finds Celine and Jesse getting philosophical and with their friends over all manner of subjects both personal and hilarious. Technology and love in the modern age are frequent topics of discussion, with Skype mentioned more than once as a preferred method of contact. Sex, commitment, perception, and antiquated gender roles all become grist for this especially chatty portion of the film, which feels like it must have been written by Linklater himself it bears such a resemblance to many of his prior works. While there's a note of tension between Celine and Jesse throughout, it really begins to peek out here as she needles him about his writing, his ego, and the arrogance of writers in general.
But then the final act begins as they go on an evening stroll through the Greek ruins and stone streets to a posh hotel for a romantic night alone. Taking on the familiar walk 'n talk style of the previous films, we're initially brought at ease by seeing these two connecting again. It's good to watch them simply ramble on together about anything and everything, playful and challenging in equal measure. But upon arriving at their room for what should have been a sex-filled night, a simple phone call is the impetus for what is a nasty, brutal argument that sees them ripping one another to shreds on just about every level. As natural as their happier conversations go, that's how authentically tough their fights are, with each finding just the right elbow to throw to cause the most amount of damage. Misunderstandings, neuroses, and pent up frustrations snowball, all but shattering the fairy tale myth of the first two films. Celine feels like many women, that she's little more than a nursemaid to her kids and Jesse's needs. While he still longs for the magic fix that will cure the problems with his ex-wife, leading to Henry becoming more a part of their lives. Celine does often come off as a bit unhinged, perhaps still channeling her 2 Days in New York persona.
It wouldn't be fair to even remotely hint at where Jesse and Celine find themselves at the end of this story, but it's safe to say that nothing is wrapped up too neat and clean. Delpy and Hawke are as believable and charming as ever, and even the smaller supporting characters add to what is already a rich tapestry. Before Midnight feels like the natural extension of the series, and will be everything fans of it could have hoped for. Is this the end of Jesse and Celine's story, though? We'll have to wait until 2022 to find out.