Hard to believe it’s been 18 years since Before Sunrise, when Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met on a train bound for Vienna, and nine since Before Sunset, where they reconnected in Paris. Now one of the rare sagas in which each chapter gives “sequel” a good name rolls on in Before Midnight, the most complex, mature, and ultimately focused of Richard Linklater’s trilogy. The present-day story finds the pair, at long last together, vacationing in the Peloponnese region of Greece on the grounds of Jesse’s writing colleague. There, the film takes an unusual, somewhat cluttered route to greatness, but one that also highlights the immense value of its central characters to the series’ enduring legacy.
Consistent with its preceding chapters, not all of Before Midnight’s conversation topics work. An opening “failure to communicate” scene of Jesse with his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) from his dissolved marriage succeeds more as a foil to the flowery exchanges between him and Celine, highlighting the rare gift of connection in their relationship. The subsequent long-take car ride from the airport with their sleeping twins (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior) in the backseat likewise has its moments, mostly as it organically plants the seed of disharmony to come. Still, though reminiscent of the unbroken dialogue from the earlier films, this one mysteriously doesn’t quite click and only later does the likely reason become clear.
At a dinner table scene, featuring what seems like more characters than in the previous two films combined, Jesse and Celine debate the human condition with their housemates and some more highs are hit, but the film doesn’t really take off until the couple head off for an evening by themselves. Within the first minutes of their extended walk-and-talk through lovely ancient scenery, the pair’s chemistry blossoms with the fly-on-a-wall naturalness that made their prior encounters such treasures. As they inform viewers of their doings from the past near-decade through casual chatter, revealing a few truly surprising details, an epiphany occurs that for the film to realize its greatest potential, the two leads must be alone.
True to form, Before Midnight delivers the goods in the film’s standout sequence, an extended argument (a good deal of it with Delpy topless) that unfurls in the couple’s luxurious hotel room. The aforementioned rift brought to the forefront, Jesse and Celine confront painfully real and universal issues, saying things that we admirers hoped (and, in one particularly heartbreaking example, the two all but promised one another) they’d never breach. The spellbinding stretch is impressively far from the idealist, quasi-pretentious musings of their collective past and a tough yet valuable reminder that even soul mates fight. For these truths and the commendable efforts of Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater, the film is a magnificent work, even if it takes a while to bloom.
Rated R for sexual content/nudity and language.