Sunday, June 02, 2013

"Before Midnight": Third time's a bittersweet charm


directed by Richard Linklater
starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Richard Linklater. Ethan Hawke. Julie Delpy. Those three names in combination have become virtually talismanic, at least for a subset of moviegoers who like their relationship movies talky and their movie relationships multilayered. It’s been 18 years since the trio first teamed up to introduce the world to an attractive pair of Gen X-ers who meet on a train and decide to spend a day in Vienna together, and nine years since they reconnected in Paris. And if there’s one thing we’ve come to know and cherish about Céline and Jesse over the course of those two unforgettable days “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” it’s that they love to gab. They never shut up, and we wouldn’t want them to.

The first part of that remains true in our latest glimpse into their ever-evolving relationship, “Before Midnight.” And that's as it should be; the chief pleasure of these movies, after all, lies in hearing Céline and Jesse talk, watching their expressions and body language as they bounce observations by turns inane and insightful, wistful and cynical, romantic and provocative, off each other. But there’s something different about the tone of their exchanges in “Midnight.” Gone is the sense of romantic expectation that pervaded the first two movies—heady though guarded in the first, still potent but more tempered by experience in the second. In its place is a new kind of tension that can be (and is) harsh, even painful, and sometimes downright ugly, to the point that there are times you do want them to stop talking.

In a way, there’s nothing particularly surprising about this development. If “Before Sunrise” was about two young people exploring the possibility of romantic connection, and “Before Sunset” about their somewhat older, somewhat more jaded selves who still carry an idealized memory of their first encounter, then “Before Midnight” marks the logical next phase for [mild SPOILERS ahead] a couple that’s been together for, well, nine years. They’re no longer flirting with intimacy, they’ve lived it. Hence all the suspense hangs not on whether they’ll get together but whether they’ll stay together. The underlying question, though, is fundamentally the same: is what they have love, and can it be sustained?

At first glance, Céline and Jesse seem to have every reason to be happy together: they live in Paris, they’re successful in their respective careers, they have two adorable young daughters together, appear to be still attracted to each other, and are vacationing in Greece, fer cryin’ out loud. But beneath the idyllic surface, frustrations roil and resentments fester. Jesse is haunted by paternal guilt over being so far from his son, who still lives in the U.S. with Jesse’s ex-wife; Céline reacts defensively by going on the offensive. To be fair, Céline also has her own private grievances with Jesse, which are only hinted at initially but eventually come to the forefront as the two shift from semi-playful bickering to real, heated argument.

In this progression, “Before Midnight” both continues and departs from the walk-and-talk patterns of its predecessors. The film falls roughly into three acts, with the first set entirely in a car, as Jesse and Céline drive back from a local airport after dropping off Jesse’s son from a visit. Their back-and-forth, as the girls sleep in the back seat – mostly about Jesse’s son, though also extending to Céline’s professional malaise – is only a prelude of things to come. The second act, which takes place at a beautifully pastoral Greek villa, is more like an interlude: for the first time in the series, Céline and Jesse interact at length with other characters—their host and other assorted guests, including two couples, one older, one younger, and an elderly widow, who together with our friends, seem to represent the potential different stages of romantic relationships. Among them, it’s the widow who makes the most lasting impression in these scenes, as she speaks poignantly of her loss and the fading of memories that give it meaning. As a commentary on the fragility (futility?) of the human quest for connection, even the kind that lasts a lifetime, it’s heartrending; yet somehow in its sadness and its beauty it raises rather than diminishes the stakes for finding that connection.

The third act starts off innocuously enough, with Jesse and Céline taking a scenic stroll to an inn where their friends have generously booked them a room for a private romantic night away from the kids. For a while, their banter feels almost like old times, though it’s tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety—until they arrive at the inn, where an ill-timed phone call triggers a fresh argument that escalates quickly into a knock-down, take-no-prisoners fight over everything that’s been bugging both of them. More like a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf than anything in “Before Sunrise” or “Sunset,” it leads to a crisis point in the form of a single line, a line so shocking it actually made one woman in my theater (not me) gasp audibly. I won’t give away how or even if the crisis resolves itself, because in true “Before” fashion, the ending is very much left open to the viewer’s interpretation. Paraphrasing something Jesse once said to a reader of his first book, it may depend on how much of a romantic or a cynic you are about love.

I am neither, which might be why I left feeling deeply ambivalent about “Before Midnight.” It’s not that I’d failed to anticipate that the dynamic between Jesse and Céline would change; I knew it would, and I knew if it was a remotely realistic long-term relationship, there would be sources of doubt and dissatisfaction on both sides. What I didn’t expect was how imbalanced my sympathies would be in watching their struggle to figure out whether they should still be together. Without prejudicing the uninitiated viewer, I’ll just say that while neither party was without blame, it felt to me like one was doing all the heavy lifting trying to save what they had while the other was consciously or unconsciously trying to sabotage it. That I ended up "siding" more with the former speaks to how invested I’d become in a relationship that I hadn’t even seen in its most crucial phase: the day to day of being in the relationship.

Should that be the case? Am I a simple-minded romantic after all? Maybe there’s a part of me that is for these two—or was. In the years since “Before Sunset,” the first two films had fused in my mind into one, near-perfect film not so much about romance as about the potential for romance, the desire for a soulmate even if you (like me) don’t believe in soulmates. “Before Midnight,” by contrast, continues a trend of recent movies that have explored the question, “So you found your ‘soulmate’—now what?” by dissecting that question mercilessly. It does so with the intelligence and honesty we’ve come to expect of Linklater & co. But in the process, it almost killed my instinct to root for Céline and Jesse as a couple, and this makes me sad.



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