dir: Richard Linklater
For many of us, at least those of us who have seen and loved Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the prospect of a third instalment is both thrilling and terrifying.
To see what has become of Jesse and Celine is both too intriguing and almost too daunting, because there’s a good reason why romantic stories, romantic movies at least, end where they end. They end after the grand gesture at the end of the movie, the great declarations of love, and just at the beginning of the presumed Happily Ever After begins. Which will last forever, don’t you know.
They don’t show us what happens afterwards, as the two people brought together by lust and amazement start getting bogged down by the mundanity of the every day, as they argue about money, about who caused the scratch on the car and who pissed on the toilet seat.
That would kind of kill the fantasy for us, since all romance is a fantasy. And the two lovebirds would cease, immediately, being these embodiments of love, youth, beauty, and would become earthbound clay and muck just like the rest of us.
Before Midnight gives us Jesse and Celine in their forties, eighteen years after they first met in Prague, nine years after they reunited in Paris, nine years after their lives together began in earnest.
So they met eighteen years ago, as sweet young things, and spent that kind of intense, overwhelming night together that some lucky people have, but that doesn't necessarily transform into anything else. And yet for years afterwards they remembered it, he wrote about it, using it as the basis for his career as a writer, and they both held on to that moment in time as a bright shining light.
When they meet again nine years later, they are tentative, almost shy, somewhat evasive, almost wary about being reminded too intensely of what they felt the first time they met, afraid the other has moved on. Even more so, they are hopeful and fearful of that hope, having lived life in the mean time, with other people, other hopes and regrets, wondering what could have been.
In the second film, the intensity of reconnecting is hedged with the arbitrary deadline of Jesse having to catch a plane back to the States, just as the first one had a morning departure as a deadline. But when, towards the end of the movie, they realise that there is no reason to adhere to such a pointless obstacle, and they smile at each other, the whole world, their whole potential future together opens up like the petals of a glorious flower.
We could have left it there. The desperate hope of the first flick, given another chance, has given us enough for us to delight that they have reconnected, and the excitement of “well, what comes next for them?” without having to tell us every or any aspect of it. We just knew that the future cruelly denied to them previous could start now.
If we had wondered where the characters had ended up, if you were that way inclined, you could have come up with scenarios that were likely, that followed what we knew about the characters, or you could have thrown random occurrences in, like life does, putting more obstacles and hardships in front of them.
In such a case, perhaps you wouldn’t have wanted the questions answered, and the ‘next’ nine years of Jesse and Celine’s lives filled in with another film, because then it would have been up to you as to what had happened to them.
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke clearly care about this story and these characters, and I say this not because of anything I’ve seen them say in interviews or online, which I have, but that’s not my point. My point is, over eighteen years they’ve invested a lot of themselves in this story. It’s a really practical point I’m making, in that it’s way harder to make a flick than it is not to make a flick, and to make three with the same premise is three times as hard. Also, actors, directors and everyone else need to make a living, and making these movies isn’t exactly a ticket to easy street riches.
It’s obvious that even though at no stage do we have any impression that the actors are pretending their actual lives are paralleling the characters they’re playing, any more so than any other role, we know, for a fact, since they’ve written the characters in tandem with Linklater, that they have very specific ideas of who Jesse and Celine are, what life they’ve lived thus far, what motivates them further. I know it sounds like a pointless thing to point out, but most actors, regardless of how closely we identify them with a role they might play, aren’t the ones writing the screenplay.
So it’s a very safe bet, at least for me, to accept that Celine is very much as Julie Delpy wants her to be, and Jesse is very much as Ethan Hawke wants him to be, and both are very much like what Hawke, Delpy and Linklater want them to be.
Wow, I’m definitely rambling. The point I should have gotten to earliest was whether I enjoyed the flick or not, which is meant to be the point of any review, I guess. I’m trying to explain why this flick is different from any other flick, why it matters, what matters, at least to me, about it all, and how, as the third instalment of a sequence of films, why such an instalment is so fraught, weighed down, by so, so much.
Having written all that, though, perhaps I should just have cut through it all and admitted that I was scared about watching this flick, and I had every right to be.
Jesse and Celine have been together several years when the flick opens. Jesse is farewelling his teenage son Hank at an airport, and he’s fussing like a mother hen, and his son, from his previous marriage, does what any teenage boy would do in pushing back, but not unkindly. Though they’re just having a conversation, we find out everything we need to know about where they are in life: their time in Southern Greece has been a holiday of sorts, but his son lives in the States with a mother that clearly hates Jesse, which bugs him.
When he leaves the airport, he’s driving the car with Celine (!) next to him nattering on, and a pair of twins, their twins together (!!) in the back seat, soon snoozing. Celine natters and natters, since this isn’t the kind of walking-and-talking long, long scenes we’ve become used to from these films; this is just an irritable couple on a road trip.
Are they irritable and irritating because: it’s a road trip? Because driving and not asking for directions is irritating? Because they’ve been on holiday together too long? Because the relationship we hoped was somehow ‘perfect’ and preserved in amber in its perfectness in the other flicks has somehow fallen apart, or, even worse, become a relationship just like all the others?
A component of it is perhaps Jesse’s lingering guilt about not being there for his son anymore except in exceptional circumstances, and the tension that arises from the suggestion he makes that perhaps they (he, Celine and the twins) could move to Chicago. As well, though, it’s (what we would assume) is the accumulation of experiences together that make this no longer the romance that we had in the first two movies. With the first two movies, they spent a handful of hours together. Sure, they had love and lust exploding all around them, animating their animated discussions, but it was a fraction of time in the scheme of things, both together and in front of us, the audience.
Now they’ve been together for years. Years. And they look back on their first meeting, and subsequent meeting, the way we do as if they watched the same films we did. Wistfully, nostalgically, anecdotally, half remembered, because of the weight of years. They don’t have new stories or untold stories to tell: they have the narrative/story of the life they’ve created together, but since they’ve done that together, there’s no need to tell each other anything other than the mundane day to day stuff.
If that’s depressing, and I’m not contending that it is, it’s depressing in the sense that all the romantic hope and glimmer of an almost magical connection between two people has dissipated, as we all knew it would, and it’s been replaced with what we hope is a deeper but more everyday kind of love.
It has, hasn’t it? Please, gods, that’s what it is, isn’t it?
Well, no, that’s what we gradually find out, although on the surface things are still at least tolerable between them, as in, it’s not outright hatred or warfare. They chat with a table of Greek people of different generations, and we get to see many of the different epochs and times in both a person’s life and in a relationship’s lifespan. There’s a brand new almost teenaged couple, overflowing with lust and joy, where both people know it ain’t going to last. There’s an older couple, slightly older than Jesse and Celine, who joke about their various habits or peccadilloes, but who both still seem to love each other. And there’s two people in their twilight years, one who’s lost the love of her life and is always aware of her loss, and an old guy who seems content with being where he is, without the love of his or anyone else’s life hanging off him.
And then we have Jesse and Celine, sniping at each other at first, still calm on the surface, but when they are ‘gifted’ with a night in a nice hotel presumably for the purpose of sexy results, all the resentments, all the anger starts to pour forth in an unending torrent.
The ‘conversation’ they have in the hotel room, or fight, is the centre piece, the piece de resistance which you didn’t know the three flicks were building towards. With that fight, where everything Celine resents about Jesse, every slight, every single fucking thing that pops into her head to use against Jesse comes pouring out in a wounding, depressing and demoralising flood. I felt as bad for Jesse as I did for myself watching it.
I was dismayed by this in the way that I’d be dismayed to see or hear a couple who I’ve been friends with for decades having such a horrible fight in front of my eyes. I know couples have these kinds of fights without it being a dealbreaker, and I’m under no illusion that I’m friends with these fucking people on the screen. But, good goddamn, did it hurt to watch.
For me it was like watching one of those contemporary horror flicks people derisively dismiss as ‘torture porn’ like the Hostel and Saw franchises where people are mutilated horribly before they’re generally killed. It was just that gutting.
What matters most, though, isn’t that this is like a signal to us that everything we hoped and dreamed for from Before Sunrise onwards just died a horrible death in front of our eyes. Nor is it so easy to pick sides (although Julie Delpy seems to want us to hate Celine in the way Celine seems to be trying to provoke Jesse into leaving her, even as we might start to understand some of the reasons behind her fears and the things they prompt her to say). Long term committed relationships - here I’m going to say the most obvious thing I’ve ever said in my life - are hard. We know this, and Celine and Jesse know this too. They’re telling us just how hard it is by showing us a relationship falling apart in front of our eyes.
We don’t know, all the same, whether this is the first time (unlikely) they’ve fought like this, whether it’s how they relieve the built-up tension between them by having slowly-escalating bust ups that release some steam, or whether this is the first time in a long time that they’ve been honest with each other, and that it’s a necessary precursor to them being able to go their separate ways, maybe.
There's also the strange resentment Celine has towards Jesse and towards their story together, in that she resents being thought of as the character in his books that the public assumes she is, which does my head in, in a real meta way. One of the more brutish statements she makes aimed at Jesse is that she is forbidding him from ever writing about her or their kids ever again, which is a bolt from the blue, but we can see the bubbling resentment that's been waiting to spew forth for a long while, perhaps.
All I know is that after Celine walks out of the hotel room for the third time, after just saying something unbelievably cruel, I felt like I completely understood the look on poor Jesse’s face. He appears gutted, but accepting, in that he knows why Celine is acting out in these horrible (and somehow justified) ways, and that nothing is set in stone, that they can salvage something from the wreckage, and it could be worth it, if he just finds the right words.
It’s easy to be terrified or dismissive of Celine’s fears, of much of what she says, but these feel like real fears. She genuinely fears having to move to Chicago, and bringing up her twin daughters in the States. She is terrified of the prospect of giving up her job and becoming solely a stay-at-home mother, something which doesn’t seem likely, but which feels horribly real to her if she is to agree to Jesse’s idea of moving to the States. Jesse doesn’t seem unreasonable in his determination to try to do the right thing by his son, who he feels he’s abandoned by pursuing a relationship with Celine, but Celine correctly points out that the amount of parenting he could actually get to do is still really limited, and in three years Hank will be an adult anyway.
They both have legitimate concerns, rational concerns behind what’s in their hearts, which is the only reason their argument is tolerable.
But, like we all know, when you start bringing in who cleans what more often, who’s not performing in bed, who might have cheated seven years ago, who does more in general, who is more present, who’s more absent, who works harder etc, the time for rational discussion has flown out the window, and now it’s time for scoring as many cheap points as possible because that’s a competition worth winning, definitely.
Do we leave these two lovebirds at the end with hope, or despair? I guess it will differ from person to person. Some people will have watched this feeling reaffirmed in their own lives, and with the life of this fictional couple, where two people across the years fight for and against each other sometimes, forging a bond that lasts, if it’s meant to last. Other, more melancholy people will watch this and think, “jeez, these people should never have gotten back together, and definitely won’t be together in nine year’s time, nor would we want them to be after the shit she just said about him.”
I guess we’ll have to wait another nine years to find out, where they can break my heart all over again. This was messy, painful, heartbreaking and it felt honest, I have to say. They’ve crafted something that feels genuine in this world, taking the promise of the past and melding it, transmuting it through the crushing passing of the years
9 times that argument in the hotel room is being had right now by approximately 100 million couples in cars, bedrooms, restaurants, laundromats around the world out of 10
“I am giving you my whole life ok? I got nothing larger to give, I'm not giving it to anybody else.” – love should be enough, but it isn’t, sometimes – Before Midnight