dir. Richard Linklater
For a movie to be a third part of a series already sounds like a can’t-win challenge. But Before Midnight, the third, hopefully not the last, part of Richard Linklater’s celebrated romance trilogy, rises to this challenge and triumphs with laudable boldness and ease. Consisting of a few very long conversation scenes, it is in itself an exciting piece of moviemaking. It taps into the exchanges between our leading couple Céline and Jesse from its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. In spite of the widely held notion that each work should stand on its own, Midnight confidently reminds viewers that it does not, nor does it intend to, but invites us to make connections among the three films.
18 years ago, Sunrise, the tale of a daylong fling set in Vienna, found its niche in the midst of a roaring indie heyday with sparkly dialog and intimate realism. Flash forward to 2004, and the equally loquacious Sunset sees the pair reunite in Paris, reminisce, and finally reconnect, though it ends on a somewhat inconclusive note. Since leaving audiences wanting more of such exotic escapism and wistfulness, this double feature has ascended to the personal-favorite status, at least for a good majority of those who watched each at the time of its theatrical release and literally grew old with them. It’s only natural the third installment couldn’t possibly cut all ties and look like a fresh new story about total strangers.
That Midnight embraces being part of a better whole allows the now fortysomethings to weave their recollections of the days they spent, either separately or together, into a flawed but ideal—by their standards anyway—universe decades in the making. In this world of theirs founded on brief rendezvous, the romance once glamorized through its very transience succumbs to reality upon the couple’s entering into a domestic partnership. The revelation that they are now a family with twin daughters of their own and a son from Jesse’s prior marriage indeed shakes everything up and anticipates something altogether different from the idyll and thrill that inhabited Sunrise and Sunset.
Still, Céline and Jesse find time to indulge in banter, flirting, bickering, and theoretical questions typical of their relationship. Besides the usual repertoire that runs the gamut from generic catchall to remembrance of old days as far back as childhood and to death, talk now revolves largely around their family. Their talk about real-world issues imparts to the overall dialog elevated levels of maturity and complexity; chats often segue into fights over the sacrifices made, promises not kept and responsibilities not fulfilled, let alone Jesse’s parental guilt over not being a conscientious father and Céline’s career aspirations on which she felt forced to compromise. All the conversations here, particularly in a half-hour-long hotel room scene, are at once emotionally loaded and politically intricate, and they immediately evoke the passage of time since Sunset—those intervening years during which they have been practically in each other’s presence, with no more fantasy, no more initial excitement, no more anything their younger selves exclusively enjoyed.
If Midnight exhibits any further marked departure from the other Before movies, it would be how the narrative progresses. In both Sunrise and Sunset, the cuts seem much less motivated and the cameras more fluid; each film, which is more like an entry in a travel journal, watches the twosome chatting and wandering around the city. In the third, on the other hand, we don’t just watch them but evaluate the weight of words they exchange, retrospect their entire history together, and even compare them with others to draw some sort of generalizations about rather abstract ideas. At a dinner conversation involving acquaintances of Jesse’s, aside from our leads, two other couples, young and middle-aged respectively, share their own romantic stories, and they all, along with two seniors, reflect on the changing nature of relationships, generational gap, and human existence.
The scenes gel more organically as well—the central conflict of the movie is foreshadowed in the opening airport scene, where Jesse sends off his son, and hints of escalation are dropped throughout until culminating in the said hotel fight. Then back in the dinner scene, when one of the seniors finishes tearfully recalling her late husband and pondering on the ephemerality of human life, the camera cuts to Céline and Jesse who start sauntering through the ruins. At the series level, a lot of the talk in Midnight is interwoven with tidbits and chunks of the dialog the pair had during their earlier excursions in Vienna and Paris.
Working with his co-writers and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Linklater does a singular job of crafting a holistic piece of conversation art by consolidating the links among the three chapters and bringing out the best in the cast. There’s little prospect of the Delpy-Hawke-Linklater trio’s version of Amour yet, but here's hoping.