Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Deply
The tragedy of The Great Gatsby (the novel, at any rate; I can’t comment on any of the films) is that Gatsby spends most of his adult life trying to recapture something which he doesn’t realize he already destroyed by capturing it in the first place. His relationship with Daisy is never more perfect than in that moment before it is consummated, because until that moment it’s ideal – there are nothing but possibilities; it can be anything. Afterwards reality sets in, the relationship is out of Gatsby’s head, and it takes a course he couldn’t have predicted. This is a long way of saying that part of the reason why the relationship of Jesse and Celine – the couple at the centre of Richard Linklater’s Before movies – can be seen as one of romantic ideal is that for two films it existed in a transitory space. It’s a relationship that at once is and isn’t. Now, with Before Midnight, Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy give us a view of the relationship that definitely is, one which no longer exists as a romantic ideal, but instead as a sometimes painful reality. It’s a harder movie than many viewers will want it to be, but it’s still great.
Nine years after the events of Before Sunset, we rejoin Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy), this time in Greece on vacation with their twin daughters and Henry, Jesse’s son from his first marriage. In the film’s opening minutes, Jesse is putting Henry on a plane, desperately using their last minutes together trying to connect, and trying not to succumb to the guilt he feels about the fact that he’s essentially a summer parent. When he returns to Celine and their daughters, he can’t stop thinking about how much of his son’s life he’s missing, and is stinging from Henry’s request that he not come visit in October to see Henry perform in a piano recital because he gets stressed out by the tensions between his parents. Jesse can’t shake the feeling that he’s failed his son and feels depressed – a feeling which he indulges after each of his visits with Henry, as Celine later points out.
After returning to the home of their host, Patrick (Walter Lassally), and enjoying a dinner with fellow house guests in which they mediate on the nature of love and relationships (the scene is interesting, not just because of what is said, but because it’s the only scene across the three films in which Jesse and Celine have an extended conversation/debate with people other than each other), Jesse and Celine set off for an evening alone at a nearby hotel. As in the first two films, they do a lot of walking and talking, acknowledging that it’s the first time they’ve discussed subjects not related to their children in a long time. They’re still good talkers, but there’s an undercurrent of tension in their conversations, different from the undercurrent of sexual tension in the previous films, and when they finally get to the hotel room, that tension explodes. The sequence that follows is sometimes difficult to watch, as it depicts two people whose intimacy runs so deep that they know exactly how to hurt each other and then do it, but it has a ring of truth to it. Neither of them is their best self during this scene and as you watch it, you can’t help but wonder, “What happened to Jesse and Celine?”
That’s not a criticism, by the way. That there are these tensions and resentments between them is natural and, in fact, the seeds for them were sown in Before Sunset, from the thread of Celine’s unfavourable opinions about the US that weaves its way through their conversations, to Jesse’s comment that he’s stayed in his unhappy marriage because he wants to be able to see his son on a daily basis. Jesse can’t be truly, completely happy living an ocean away from his son, and Celine can’t be happy living in the US, particularly now that it would mean abandoning the career trajectory that she’s currently on. So they’ve reached a compromise that doesn’t really work for either of them, one which leaves Jesse feeling guilty and like he’s abandoned his son, and one which leaves Celine feeling guilty and anxious about Jesse’s guilt and what it will do to their relationship. I’ve read some viewer reactions to the film which write off Celine’s behavior in the final third as her acting like “a crazy bitch,” a criticism which I think is simplistic and unfair. Certainly she’s not being nice (and, yes, she’s way meaner to Jesse than he is to her), but you have to consider this one fight within the larger context that the film provides. Celine knows that Jesse feels unhappy and guilty about the situation with Henry, and she fears that he resents her for the fact that he’s had to choose between his first family and his second family. She might alleviate that by agreeing to move to the US, but she also knows that that wouldn’t fundamentally change anything. The nature of Jesse’s custody situation with his ex-wife would keep his time with Henry limited and, besides that, she knows that his work would have him away for extended periods on book tours, limiting his time with Henry even further. What would actually change is that she would feel like she was shouldering the burden on her own in a country she doesn’t want to live in.
There’s a brutality to the proceedings in Before Midnight that is absent from the first two films, as the story transitions from the realm of fairytale to that of stark reality. It remains a love story, but one with sharp edges. Hawke and Delpy, who know these character so well, having lived them off and on for the better part of 20 years, make Jesse and Celine older but not necessarily wiser, having grown together in some ways, and grown apart in others. Their performances, and Linklater’s direction, feel effortless even as the film reaches for more ambitious heights than its two predecessors. It may not always be pretty, but it’s real and it’s engrossing. And, I suspect, it will prove enduring.