Monday, June 10, 2013

Before Midnight (****)

Directed by Richard Linklater


Richard Linklater's Before... series is easily one of my favorite film trilogies of all time. Born in 1995, from the dialogue exercise Before Sunrise, which took a young Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and put them in Vienna, then had them talk and talk and talk and talk and sometime in the middle of all of that fall in love. Nine years later, Hawke, Delpy and Linklater reunited for the 2004 film Before Sunset, an 80-minute masterpiece which showed their characters reuniting for the first time since their wonderful night in Vienna. Now, another nine years later, we have the latest film in the series, Before Midnight. All three films are so intrinsically different, yet so familiar in the most charming ways, marking time in both the fictional lives of this couple and also the actual lives of the viewers. Before Midnight is incredible because this story is so lived in for two decades by its audience; we are totally aware and familiar with even the most unflattering aspects of their relationship.

With Before Midnight, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) have stayed together since their magical reunion in Before Sunset. They are at the tail-end of a six-week vacation in Greece with both their toddler-aged, blonde-haired twins and Jesse's son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) from his now destroyed former marriage. In the film's first scene, Jesse walks Hank through the airport toward security before saying goodbye. Hank lives with his mother in Chicago, while Jesse and Celine live in Paris with the two girls and an entire ocean between Jesse and Hank. This is a point that Jesse wastes little time in mentioning to Celine as they drive back from the airport, and its a point that strikes at the central conflict in this film: Jesse desperately wants to be able to spend more time with his son, but can only do that if he moves back to the US - a move that Celine desperately does not want to make.

Like its two predecessors, Before Midnight is a marathon of dialogue filled with long, tracking takes and settings that just get smaller and smaller. Truth be told, the film may have less than ten actual scenes, and all of them go wire-to-wire with Jesse and Celine going at it, the tension building between the two before it crescendos in a hotel room scene that cranks out for what seems like forever as Hawke and Delpy perform a theater-like endurance test of acting that is about as brilliant as anything that you can see in a movie these days. The first two films, filled with so much unbridled passion between these two young, good looking people are testaments to love. But Midnight is a lot less romantic, and after nine straight years and two children together, the passion has definitely been tampered. They're now in their forties, the beauty is still there but its matured and muted. The blossoming ambition is now bitter resentment, and even with all the emotions changing from the first two films, these characters - so beautifully realized by Hawke and Delpy - are still the same familiar faces we saw on that train in Vienna nineteen years ago.

This series - a true collaboration between two actors and one director - is a marvel within this franchise-laden studio film system. These movies are small in scope and production (though I don't want that fooling anybody - Linklater is a marvelous director and these movies are impeccably well-made), have nothing carrying them past the strength of its performances, and wait nine years before making a new one. Could you imagine Marvel trying to wait nine years before making a new Avengers movie? I realize that the analogy isn't logical, but these are literally stories told by talented storytellers when they decide its the right time to tell it. This system works perfectly, creating films so rich and allowing its audience to sufficiently miss these people. We've seen their evolution these two decades and the fact that their relationship, no matter how unorthodox it was in its creation, goes the way that most romantic love goes seems fitting, though we'll keep rooting for them to stay together until the very last frame.

The careers of Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater are all interesting in their loopy, up-and-down ways. Linklater has been one of the best independent filmmakers in these last few decades, but his films have always been esoteric and off-the-radar in a commercial sense with a few exceptions (Dazed and Confused and School of Rock were both big successes in that regard). Delpy's career is a modest triumph, and a newly developing directing career got off to a great start with what might be one of my favorite romantic comedies ever, 2 Days In Paris. Hawke, though, has always lived the career of the reluctant movie star, embodying the brooding twenty-something of grunge-era 90's in films like Reality Bites, and has been quietly hanging around the movie business for twenty more years and sneaking in brilliant performances here and there (it's amazing to think his characters in Gattaca and Training Day are played by the same actor). But none of these performers have done anything as good as these three films.

The true miracle of this series is how much better these movies keep getting better, and I mean that in several different ways. The films get better over time with repeated viewings the way all great movies do, but with each new addition to the story of Jesse and Celine, the previous films become that much more terrific with the advantage of the latest story's perspective. Before Midnight feels even better than Before Sunset which felt even better than Before Sunrise, but the truth is that it's really this sequence of films, each spaced by a decade, that makes the new experience better. When you consider all of the things in your life that mark time (birthdays, garbage collection schedules), the Before... series is definitely in my top five. I could probably catch up with Jesse and Celine every nine years, but not a second sooner or longer. These films are made with obvious care and attention by Linklater and his two actors (the three of them have written the last two screenplays together), and I'd like that tradition to continue.

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