Cinema Review: Before Midnight

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DIR: Richard Linklater  WRI: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke  PRO: Christos V. Konstantakopoulos Richard Linklater, Sara Woodhatch  DOP: Christos Voudouris  ED: Sandra Adair  CAST:  Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Ariane Labed

The summer is here. That means lots of sequels in the cinema. Before Midnight demonstrates what character development in a sequel can be. It is also an engaging dialogue on the nature of 21st century romance, well written, with excellent performances.

The romance between Celine and Jesse, which began in Vienna in Before Sunrise, rekindled in Paris in Before Sunset, continues to unfold in Before Midnight. At the end of the middle film, Jesse missed a flight home from Paris to be with Celine. The story resumes nine years later, this time in Greece.

At the airport, Jesse drops off Henry, his son from his previous marriage. Henry returns to Chicago, living with his mother. Jesse remains in Greece and resumes the final days of his holidays there with Celine and their twin children. They visit the beach and help prepare dinner at the home of elderly writer Patrick (Walter Lassally) and his family. Their friends booked a local hotel for Celine and Jesse to have some time alone. They enjoy their conversation as they stroll to the hotel, where they spend the rest of the evening. Like the previous films, the pleasures are less in what the characters do than in what they say and how they say it.

Plato wrote, “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.” This film touches on love and romance, taking as its theme what keeps a couple together. While the script is not exactly poetic, it is still quite special. Its characters engage in interesting conversation, telling stories, asking questions, cracking jokes, sometimes arguing. Discussion sometimes veers into the pretentious, for example, questioning the notion of self, but it offers a refreshingly intelligent and often humorous look at 21st-century romance. Conversations between the characters functions as the film’s “action”. Dinnertime discussion, in which characters of different ages and perspectives talk about contemporary sexuality, romance and the gender divide, raises issues explored in the relationship between Celine and Jesse that takes up most of the screen time.

Director Linklater elicits fine naturalistic performances from his ensemble. Walter Lassally, a former cinematographer who worked on Tom Jones and Zorba the Greek, makes his acting debut (aged 85). Xenia Kalogeropoulou, a famous Greek actress, came out of retirement to recount, as ageing Natalia, a touching remembrance of her deceased husband. Young Yiannis Papadopoulos (Achilleas) and Ariadne Labed (Anna) provide good looking support as Patrick’s grandchild and his girlfriend. The cadences and rhythms of speech throughout the film make it feel sometimes like the actors are improvising, but this is not so. Acting and writing are impeccably well judged.

Of course, the film centres on the relationship between Celine and Jesse, and Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke take up most of the screen time. They have come to know their characters intimately and they act with conviction. Their characters are necessarily not consistently likeable. Celine’s feminist anger can grate; not that she’s wrong, just that she feels Jesse misunderstands or is insensitive to her position. Jesse can come across as self-satisfied. But the fact they are not thoroughly likeable makes their personalities that more credible and believable. Seeing these films is perhaps like meeting old friends, listening to what they have to say, but not necessarily agreeing with everything.

Linklater’s unobtrusive reaction complements the film’s naturalism, combining long static shots and extended takes. There are no visual gimmicks or flashy techniques: Linklater focuses on making the film’s world appear to be “real life”, as the characters assert. Sandra Adair’s crisp editing and Christos Voudouris’ sharp framing and lighting also lend well to the film’s apparent authenticity.

The trilogy, taken together, provides perhaps a generation-defining look at contemporary romance, beginning with the characters in their idealistic 20s, their complicated 30s, becoming frustrated in their 40s. Each film, taken alone, is perhaps not particularly original. One only has to think of the mind games played out, for example, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). But, over time, Linklater reinvigorates the romantic comedy/drama with his remarkable naturalistic style and complex characterisation, epitomised by Celine.

Celine presents as one of the most articulate and complex female characters in a cinematic romance. Deciding whether or not she should take a government job makes Celine, an environmental activist, anxious. She berates Jesse, a successful novelist, for making her decision worse by assuming that he wants to their family home from Paris to Chicago so that he can play a more consistent role in Henry’s life. She criticises Jesse, “Captain Cleanup”, for failing to acknowledge that “little fairies” are not responsible for tasks such as unloading the dishwasher. She must also deal with Jesse’s apparent representation of her as Madeline in his novels. She’s not afraid to advance her point of view and she does not allow herself to be defined solely by her relationship to Jesse, even though their relationships is central to the works. Celine, as a character, more nuanced, realistic and credible than most characters balancing their work, home and romantic life.

Socrates advised men to get married:  if you find a good wife, you’ll be happy; if you find a bad wife, you’ll become a philosopher, and that is no bad thing, he said, for any man. Celine and Jesse are not married, but they have found each other. Sometimes they’re happy; sometimes they’re not, and their arguments, jokes, stories and talks, their encounters, excursions, adventures and walks, all on a sunny Greek evening, make their musings, “walking around bullshitting”, as Jesse puts it, great entertainment.

John Moran

108 mins

15A (see IFCO website for details)

Before Midnight is released on 21st June 2013

 Before Midnight – Official Website

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