Before Midnight | Movie review
There’s a twinge of heartache in seeing our actors age (or, defiantly, not age) onscreen. To watch Jeff Bridges pull out all the crusty stops in 2010’s True Grit is to mourn his golden god in Against All Odds (1984), washed away in the sea surf. Clint Eastwood is an institution to the idea of battered masculinity; even if his plots keep him on top, the face tells another story. Rarely, though, have films embraced the ravages of time as fully as director Richard Linklater’s “Before” collaborations with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, two performers who can’t be called vain. Before Sunrise (1995), the trio’s first outing, had indie friskiness on its side: a Europass romance imbued with collegiate drive. The same lovers showed up again, dreamily, in Linklater’s animated Waking Life (2001), and when we next hooked up with novelist Jesse (Hawke) and his one-night stand, Celine (Delpy), in a pink-hued Paris for 2004’s Before Sunset, a beautiful regret had dawned in their eyes.
Nine years have again passed. Before Midnight may be the most superheroic sequel of the summer, as middle-aged Jesse and Celine grapple with foes many adults can appreciate: thwarted ambitions, work distractions and the pressures of rearing kids together. (As before, Hawke and Delpy share in the screenwriting.) In a relaxed opening sequence, we take in the changes: a strained goodbye at the airport between now-divorced Jesse and his adolescent son; then, a casual drive with sleeping twins in the backseat. We reacquaint ourselves with the man behind the wheel, still jokingly boastful, and his side-seat paramour, a semiplayful sparrer. They wear a certain exhaustion. Celine is too neurotic to ignore it. Are these the seeds of resentment?
Linklater and his two leads take on that question as the film’s implicit theme, and it can’t be stressed how refreshing it is to be treated at the multiplex like a person with a brain. You don’t need to have seen the prior two movies to revel in the banter, but it’ll undeniably help, the characters enriched with every hidden half-smirk and teasing retort. They are in southern Greece, at the tail end of a six-week vacation with the family of one of Jesse’s literary colleagues. As Before Midnight eases into one of those legendary late-afternoon Mediterranean meals—of freshly cut tomatoes, stuffed peppers, and witty tales of myth and marriage—the cracks begin to show. There’s a shrewdness to the scripting this time, the central pair flanked by other couples at different stages of life, notably a swooning duo of smart Greek teens (Ariane Labed and Yiannis Papadopoulos) who call back to the series’s Vienna-set original.
Love, we hear (but not pedantically so—the film is too sophisticated for that), has as much to do with randomness as it does attention. Linklater turned this idea into a brilliant visual motif with Before Sunset’s lengthy, uninterrupted strolls, walks that took in changes of heart as much as scenery. Do my eyes deceive me, or are many of Midnight’s walks shot from behind, with Celine and Jesse on the verge of receding? That’s the subtle level this movie operates on, and by the time it arrives at its powerhouse climax, a ruinous argument in a hotel room where all lingering doubts are finally and furiously outed, there’s nowhere left for them to ramble. They’re pinned down and have to improvise, but this glorious movie has infinite space to roam.