By Preston Wilder
First things first: even though Before Midnight is playing at the Cyprus multiplex because it’s set in Greece and has an idyllic-looking poster with a view of the Aegean, this is actually a sequel to Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), two films (neither of which played at the Cyprus multiplex) setting out the ongoing saga of Celine and Jesse. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) first approached Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train outside Vienna, in the impulsive way that people do in their early twenties; they spent a night walking and talking, fell in love, drifted apart, then got back together in Paris nine years later – and that’s where we left them nine years ago, with Jesse deliberately missing his plane to stay with Celine in what might’ve been a one-night stand or the start of a new chapter.
A certain familiarity with the previous instalments is useful here – even in the opening scene, with Jesse by himself at the airport in Kalamata, saying goodbye to his 13-year-old son who’s flying back to America. Jesse is divorced; the boy points out that “Mum hates you” – and I must admit I was momentarily puzzled, having not seen Sunset in years. Have Celine and Jesse gotten married and divorced in the interim? But surely this child is too old? Turns out the child is Henry, Jesse’s son by his first wife whom he left after reuniting with Celine on that fateful day in Paris – and Celine is outside, waiting in the car with their twin daughters. That opening scene (which I suspect director Richard Linklater tweaks deliberately, to make us unsure of our bearings) is the only time we see one half of the couple without the other in the whole movie.
The rest of the film is really three extended scenes: Jesse and Celine talking in the car, with the girls asleep in the back seat; Jesse and Celine having lunch with Greek friends at the house where they’re spending a six-week vacation; then Jesse and Celine in a hotel room, a one-night romantic retreat – a gift from their friends – that turns into a bitter, shocking quarrel. The middle one of these three scenes is terrible verging on embarrassing, and proof that casting is everything: Hawke and Delpy make fluid, conversational acting look easy (Midnight, like its predecessors, is extremely talky) but not everyone can do it. The others sound stilted, like they’re reading lines, their jokes are laboured and when they start philosophizing you just want to cringe. Admittedly, not all are professional actors (they include the director of Attenberg), but any actor would struggle with forelock-tugging dialogue about how “ephemeral” our lives are: “We appear and we disappear. We are so important to some – but we are just passing through…”
Fortunately, for the last 40 minutes or so we’re with Jesse and Celine in that hotel room – and the result is riveting, one of the great married-couple back-and-forths to rank with the classic quarrels in Contempt or Scenes From a Marriage. A little bit contrived, admittedly; a phone call arrives at precisely the wrong moment, after which things escalate in a way that feels slightly schematic. One might also say that Jesse is a little too perfect (a tendency to smugness has always been Hawke’s biggest problem as an actor), patiently countering Celine’s more irrational anger – but in fact his wounded sensitivity has a clear tinge of the passive-aggressive, and besides there’s something else going on here, the veiled hint that Celine has a kind of death-wish about the relationship. Death figures more than it should in her dialogue, from an early story about drowned kittens to talk of the Pompeii corpses in the 1954 film Journey to Italy – itself the story of a marriage in trouble.
This morbid (or morbid romantic) streak in Celine could potentially prove decisive when the relationship unravels – as I suspect it will – in a fourth instalment, nine years down the line. Before Midnight feels a bit transitional, and it’s certainly the first time in the trilogy that nothing is at stake dramatically: Sunrise was the tale of a grand romantic gesture that could go either way, and of course Sunset had a clear, ticking-clock dilemma – but in this case we know Celine and Jesse aren’t going to break up just like that, over half a night, so it’s really just a case of observing the relationship.
With that small caveat, and if you can ignore the lunchtime scene, the film is near-perfect. All the small things about the couple – Celine’s self-conscious irreverence in an old church, slacker Jesse saying of someone he dislikes that “when I look at him, all I see is ambition”, above all the unforced rapport between Celine and Jesse (or is it Delpy and Hawke?) – emerge so naturally that the lines between actor and character become imperceptible. The entire final act in the hotel is one for the ages. Blame or credit that holiday-brochure poster for getting this talky, smart, decidedly grown-up film at the Cyprus multiplex, but don’t miss out: it’s one of the best films you’ll see all year at the Cyprus multiplex.
DIRECTED BY Richard Linklater
STARRING Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
US 2013 109 mins