It was 1995 when audiences were first introduced to Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.” That was a pleasant, romantic film, which took the staid old Meet Cute tradition of a young couple falling in love at first sight and infused it with new life, thanks to its bumbling, rambling authenticity. Celine and Jesse were precocious and idealistic, sure, but at least they talked like real precocious, idealistic twentysomethings, rather than the absolutely meaningless platitudes of most modern Hollywood romances. “Before Sunset,” the unexpected but most welcome 2004 sequel, propelled the characters to new heights: Linklater and his actors successfully aged Celine and Jesse in a believable fashion, establishing the couple among the more well-rounded, lived-in creations of recent film history.
Now, with the arrival of “Before Midnight,” Celine and Jesse’s story has transformed into something that no one would’ve expected when the two lovers started wandering the streets of Vienna almost twenty years ago. Linklater’s trilogy has essentially become the fictionalized version of Michael Apted’s series of “Up” documentaries: an extraordinary document of how the passage of time can change both everything and nothing about a person. Less and less do Celine and Jesse seem like protagonists to identify with and learn from rather than old acquaintances that you just want to grab a drink and catch up with for a few hours.
And really, that couple of hours is getting to be quite enough. It’s not that Celine and Jesse haven’t always been insufferable in a way – their self-conscious intellectualism and philosophizing could alternately charm your pants off or send your eyes rolling – but after eighteen years and two other films, “Before Midnight” seems to be particularly emphasizing the double edge of emotional intimacy. At this point we are well aware of Celine and Jesse’s personal history, their behavioral tics and quirks, their dreams and sacrifices; it’s both a comforting familiarity and an anxiety attack waiting to happen, as we can sense exactly when and where the inevitable conflicts will arise.
Considering that the couple is now working on a nine-year committed relationship, such domestic drama is indeed unavoidable. As it happens, Jesse did miss that plane back in 2004, and in the following months left his wife to start a new life with Celine. When “Before Midnight” opens, the family is enjoying a six-week getaway at a writer’s retreat in Greece; Jesse, who has continued enjoying success writing semi-autobiographic novels, drops off Hank, his son by his ex-wife, at the airport. Much of the film’s tension comes from Hank’s long-distance relationship with his father: both Celine and Jesse clearly harbor guilt for the decision to move to Europe and thereby lose custody of Hank, even though they now have twin daughters of their own. The question is whether Jesse actively blames Celine for “losing” his son, and so the merry-go-round begins. As the couple strolls through pristine villas and ancient ruins, they reflect on the past and argue over the future.
The thing is, what Celine and Jesse are discussing has become completely besides the point. Their thoughts about romance, relationships, family, Balzac and whatever else have become so super-specific to these characters that they’re irrelevant to the audience’s sympathies. But Linklater, luckily, is highly aware of this, and brilliantly finds room for the first time in the series to allow someone other than his destined lovers to put in a word or two. In an extended dinner party scene, Celine and Jesse are exposed to a sort of Dickensian vision of their alternate selves: joined by a starry-eyed young couple, a contemporary, vaguely alternative Greek husband and wife, and two elder companions, a Platonic widow and widower. The varied demographics represented bring with them conflicting attitudes towards love and companionship, suggesting that Celine and Jesse likewise are hardly immutable. Age brings changes in perspective, and it’s likely to be that way with audience members and these films: as we watch and revisit the Saga of Celine and Jesse, each viewing is likely to bring new moments of clarity, as well as new frustrations or fears. There’s something that resonates in their humanity if not in their individuality.
It’s not that we want to be Celine and Jesse – “Before Midnight” seems to be working overtime to bring out the flaws in each, with Celine making spectacular leaps of logic and Jesse swimming in self-righteousness (and both serving up a master course on passive-aggression). But it’s hard to shake that nagging feeling that we are them anyway. Switch out the flaws and neuroses for something more unique to yourself and you might find it hellish to watch your doppelgänger on the screen for two hours. Consider how remarkable the performances by Delpy and Hawke truly are, to make such naturally flawed people just charming enough to make the time fly by. They’ve been handed a paradox by Linklater: engage the audience with a couple that’s fed up with each other. Delpy in particular pulls it off with aplomb, although in fairness to her co-star hers is the far showier, open-sleeve role.
An essential quality, I think, of a truly great film trilogy is that the addition of each passing installment should retroactively improve or enlighten the material that came before it. The Bourne films (sans “Legacy”) pulled this trick off neatly, as did the Toy Story franchise, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and of course intentionally epic tales like Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars series. But Linklater’s Celine and Jesse films are probably the most quiet, compassionate entry to that canon. In a world where Hollywood sequels are ruled by ever-growing bombast, “Before Midnight” really takes it to heart that a sequel doesn’t have to be bigger and better, just subsequent. Everything we see here grows organically out of what came before. If Linklater, Delpy and Hawke want to keep Celine and Jesse growing, I’d be happy to check in with them again in another nine years. Perhaps “Before Noon?”
Now playing in indie theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars