Watching Before Midnight in a multiplex is a strange experience. Here’s a movie about two people who drive and stroll through the Greek countryside and talk, sometimes in marathon single takes. That’s pretty much all that happens. Meanwhile, in the theater’s side wall, the apocalyptic explosions of Man of Steel rumble like an approaching storm.
The background noise is annoying, yet it fits. In every movie that takes human relationships seriously, there’s a storm on the horizon, one that induces a more immediate, relatable dread than the doomsday machines of superhero flicks could ever do. It’s a threat with many names: falling out of love. Separation. Death.
“This is the end,” Céline (Julie Delpy) tells her longtime partner, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), toward the start of Before Midnight. She’s talking not about the end of the world but about the end of their relationship, which began way back in 1995 with Before Sunrise. In that film from writer-director Richard Linklater, the young Jesse and Céline met in Vienna, spent a summer night exchanging their deep thoughts on love and other stuff (as twentysomethings will do) and parted.
It was a surprisingly poignant and brainy movie, but not a sad one. Darker tones crept into the sequel, Before Sunset (2004), in which the couple, nine years more disillusioned, met again. They rekindled the spark, but Jesse was married to someone else.
Now, nine years on, we find Jesse divorced and living with Céline. Still not married, they’re raising their 7-year-old twins (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior) in Paris and vacationing in Greece. But this is no happily-ever-after.
It’s also not necessarily “the end,” except in Céline’s disaster-obsessed mind. Like so many couples, this one faces a crossroads where their personal and professional goals appear to diverge. Over the course of an afternoon and evening, they’ll discover if their bond can take the strain.
How do they do that? They talk. And talk. And talk some more. What lifts Linklater’s trilogy above your average dialogue-heavy indie is not just the intelligence of the conversation — scripted by the director and the two stars — but its frankness and humor. No holds are barred here: While Céline acts like the “mayor of Crazytown” (in Jesse’s words), Jesse just as often plays the fatuous buffoon. They show us their worst sides and, on occasion, their best. Along the way, they breathe fresh life into stereotypes about men and women in relationships and touch on the deeper truths beneath.
Some viewers may be put off by Céline’s hypercritical, drama-queen flailing — it’s essentially the same prickly persona Delpy displayed in the films she directed, 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York. But her insistence on pushing every emotion to its logical extreme keeps the interaction lively and the stakes high.
One of the film’s more sobering revelations is that, for all the superficial shifts in their lives, Céline and Jesse haven’t changed that much in 18 years. At 41, they’re still seeking some higher love, some deeper fulfillment, some sense that this is finally real life. Can they ever expect to find it?
Perhaps the movie’s wisest moment comes not from the protagonists but from veteran Greek actress Xenia Kalogeropoulou, whose character describes to Jesse, Céline and their friends how it felt to lose her husband. She concludes: “We are all just passing through.” Suddenly the couple’s clashing aspirations seem a lot less important than their presence to each other here and now.
Before Midnight is also just passing through; by Friday, it may have vanished from local theaters. You can still catch it this October on video.
* Running time: 109 min.
* Rated: R