***1/2 (out of four)
“I [bleeped] up my life because of the way you sing.”
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) hurls that back-handed gem at Celine (Julie Delpy) during an epic fight in “Before Midnight,” director/co-writer Richard Linklater’s follow-up to 1995’s “Before Sunrise” and 2004’s “Before Sunset.” What began as a hopeful-if-bittersweet toast to romantic opportunity and transitioned to adult disappointments and difficult choices with more at stake has become a profoundly authentic depiction of a struggling, textured long-term relationship.
Nearly two decades removed from their joyous night in Vienna, and about a decade into their lives as a couple, Jesse, his beard now specked with gray, and Celine, her patience thinner and her waistline wider, only occasionally resemble the young, passionate lovebirds of “Before Sunrise.” How could they? Now in their early 40s and raising twin daughters, they live in Paris, where Jesse has only extremely rare opportunities to see his teenage son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), in Chicago.
“Before Midnight” takes place at the tail end of a Grecian vacation, after Hank departs from a summer with his dad and before Jesse, Celine and their girls return home. Now Jesse longs to spend more time with Hank; Celine refuses to move. In electric, often-sad conversations, the two descend into frustrations and resentments while ping-ponging in and out of calm. These two have history and understanding and deep dissatisfaction. Their discussions have the rhythm of real life, as likely to generate nods of recognition from couples in the audience as start a fight between them on the way home.
I don't know if “Before Midnight” is the end of our time with Jesse and Celine. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke are running out of times to reference in their titles. (“Before Starbucks Opens”?) At times in “Midnight” they touch on territory similar to “This is 40” without expanding on it. Doubts about the validity of modern monogamy don't really receive a counter-point. Yet the film also weeps for technology's impact on the dream of love—it connects lovers spread miles apart but means the old-fashioned connection between Jesse and Celine may never happen again in the Facebook age. The articulate movie is a wonder to behold, through conversations and arguments couples, and people in general, have had before and will have again.
“Before Midnight” confronts fundamental gender gaps and asks how we should live, with whom and why. Whether the film’s suggestion—that to accept love in the long run is to destroy the fantasy of the new, as long as that can be revived periodically—represents a glass half-full or half-empty scenario will depend on the viewers, and who’s sitting next to them.
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