By Gareth Negus
“How long has it been since we just wandered around bullshitting?” wonders Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Midnight. The correct answer, though it doesn’t come, is nine years: the period of time since we last saw Jesse and Celine (Julie Delpy) in the 2004 film Before Sunset. Before that, it was nine years again, when the couple first met in Before Sunrise (1995).
It’s a long way from being the year’s biggest threequel, yet in some circles, Before Midnight is surely the most anticipated. Directed, like its predecessors, by Richard Linklater, co-written by the director and his two stars, it now completes one of the most satisfying trilogies in cinema.
In the first, Jesse meets Celine on a train while travelling across Europe. At a loose end for a night, he persuades her to spend a night exploring Vienna with him. The film follows them as they explore the town, discuss their lives and their hopes for the future, and fall in love, while being aware that their time together is limited. At the film’s end, they agree to meet in six months at the same station. Though open-ended, the question of whether or not they saw each other again was one that at the time, nobody expected – and perhaps, nobody wanted – to be resolved. The film was the story of one romantic night, the kind of brief encounter that many people – young and old – would dream of experiencing on holiday. It only became a cliffhanger in retrospect.
The second film opens with Jesse in Paris, on a promotional tour for his novel This Time, based on the events of the first film. Answering questions in a bookshop, he is asked if his characters really did meet six months later. After claiming that the question makes a good test of whether you are a romantic or a cynic, he avoids it: “To quote my grandfather, to answer that would take the piss out of the whole thing.”
Of course, the answer is shortly revealed, though the film in no way takes the piss out of the whole thing. The shortest of the three films, Before Sunset takes place in real time as Jesse and Celine discuss their memories of their night together, and how they feel about it in retrospect. Time is again against them, as Jesse is shortly to catch a plane home to an unhappy marriage. The film ends on a cliffhanger of sorts – albeit a completely satisfying one – as it becomes clear that Jesse is not going to catch his plane.
Though Hawke and Delpy apparently had considerable input into the screenplay of the first film, it was credited to Linklater and Kim Krizan. The sequel credits them officially as co-writers, and aspects of their own subsequent careers were clearly included. Hawke had become a published novelist (though one gets the sense that Jesse’s book had better reviews), while Delpy released an album, three songs of which are used in the film, including one sung, and supposedly written, by Celine herself.
Before Sunset is a very rare kind of film; a sequel to a film which apparently had no need of one, that fits seamlessly with its predecessor in form and style while broadening its emotional scope. That’s a high ambition for a brief, and apparently straightforward tale, but it is utterly successful; a masterpiece that also strengthened its predecessor.
The third film necessarily takes a slightly different approach. While the characters are again in a picturesque location (Greece, on holiday with friends and family) the pressure of time is off. We again get long, languid takes in which the couple wander around the scenery talking, but only after earlier scenes which involve other characters – firstly, Jesse’s now-teenage son – and reveal what has happened to the couple in the years since we last saw them. Initially, all seems well, but it soon becomes clear that there are tensions in their relationship. Jesse worries about his son; Celine, about her career. Their friends have arranged for the couple to spend the night alone in a hotel, yet neither seems overly keen on the idea, and go along with it largely to avoid appearing ungrateful.
It’s in the hotel, in the final third of the film, that the bubbling resentments between the couple come to the fore in a painful, vicious argument. Hawke and Delpy are better than ever here: there’s a moment when she sits, arms folded, eyes narrowed in cold fury, that should send a shiver of apprehension through every man watching. And it’s possible to sympathise with both, to recognise when each is failing to understand the other’s perspective, and when each has a valid complaint against the other. It is genuinely upsetting to see these most loquacious and articulate of characters turn on each other like this, but also riveting. Finally, it’s honest – both about the difficulty of maintaining the passion of a new romance, and about how small disagreements and resentments can fester and poison a relationship – in a way that a film suffused with the same romantic glow of its predecessors could not be.
If I had to criticise the film, I would admit that some of the supporting characters feel as though they’ve strolled in from a Woody Allen film (though one of the good ones). Also, the final scene feels a little artificial; it’s there to ensure a resolution, open ended and possibly temporary though it is, and doesn’t have the natural flow we’ve become accustomed to in this series. But that’s a very minor flaw.
I have been lucky enough to see all three films on their original release, when I was the same age as the characters. Anyone coming to them now is denied that. Perhaps they could watch the first film in their early 20s and then space the sequels out, but that seems a little fussy. And one wonders what people that age would make of Sunrise now, a film created in a distant time when it was still credible that the characters lacked mobile phones and email addresses, let alone facebook accounts.
On the other hand, it’s equally valid to watch the films in one go, or even in reverse order, studying the way Hawke and Delpy devolve back to their unlined, doe-eyed twentysomething selves. How this would affect one’s response to the films is an interesting question (I’d love to know if anyone has tried this, and how they felt about it).
Will there be another? Should we even want one? I feel the same way I did after Before Sunset – eager to see another film whenever the creators feel ready to make one, yet dreading the idea that they might not be able to pull it off again. Equally, there’s a fear that their story might ultimately not have a happy ending (I’m really not sure I want to see them end up in a version of Amour). Each of these three films gives the viewer the same test: are you a romantic or a cynic? Did you believe they would meet at the station in six months? Will they stay together in Paris? Will they be able to maintain their relationship for another nine years?
One of the first things Celine says to Jesse is, “Have you heard that as couples grow older they lose the ability to hear each other?” This, she explains, is because men lose the ability to hear high pitched sounds, while women lose hearing in the low end. Jesse replies that this is “Nature’s way of allowing couples to grow old together.”
I very much hope that Jesse and Celine will grow old together, and that we’ll be able to watch it happen.
Gareth Negus does a certain amount of tweeting.
Before Midnight is released in the UK on Friday 21 June.