There are few filmic trilogies that end with a bang. Often, the final instalment in a trilogy fizzles out disappointingly like the last sparkler on New Year’s Eve. There are a handful of existential quandaries that have perplexed me recently. Why doesn’t the word umlaut have an umlaut? Why don’t I have Catholic guilt about my lack of Catholic guilt? And, most significantly, why can’t the third film in a trilogy sustain the same energy and artistry as the previous two films? In trilogies such as Star Wars, The Godfather, The Dark Knight, Evil Dead and even the excellent Apu and Three Colours, the third film is my least favourite. Perhaps this is why I embraced Before Midnight so whole-heartedly; it ends the superb Before trilogy in, for want of a better word, a perfect way. Before, like Toy Story, is one of the few trilogies that get consistently better with each film.
Richard Linklater is one of my favourite working directors, and I suppose I was predisposed to liking Before Midnight. His films, while not visually challenging, are quite experimental for a mainstream filmmaker. They are narratively experimental. Slacker is one of the key films in the 1990s American independent movement, and the entire film is made up of miniscule vignettes, each involving different characters walking and talking about trivial issues. His upcoming Boyhood was filmed over a twelve-year period, following the development of one boy from ages six to eighteen. Similarly, Before Midnight has a fairly unconventional narrative: from memory, there are only six scenes in the entire 110 minute film. If this sounds mundane and boring to you, do not fear; Before Midnight is the sharpest, fastest, funniest and most satisfying film of 2013. It is as intellectually stimulating as it is constantly entertaining.
Returning from Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) are star-crossed lovers Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke). Now, in 2013, Celine and Jesse are in their forties. Jesse looks grubby, like his hair needs a good wash, and his face looks craggy and weathered (possibly a result of Ethan Hawke’s former drug use). Celine complains about her “fat French arse”. Like the previous two films in the trilogy, Before Midnight takes place in a European city – this time in Greece – as Celine and Jesse walk through the labyrinthine streets and have loquacious discussions about anything and everything.
However, Before Midnight is different from the other two films in the trilogy. Before Sunrise depicted Celine and Jesse’s chance encounter on a train and their voyage in Vienna. Before Sunset, set nine years later, details their next chance encounter – it is only the second time that these characters have physically interacted with each other. In Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse have been in a committed relationship for the last nine years. They have twin daughters, and their careers have been beneficially evolving – Jesse is still a successful novelist, while Celine is considering a job with the French government.
I find describing films that I utterly love far more difficult than reviewing films that I dislike or only partially like. Inevitably, I get rather sentimental, vague and non-analytical when I review a film that I am absolutely infatuated with. I saw Before Midnight twice in the cinema on two consecutive days, and it is definitely my favourite film in the trilogy. Much like Celine and Jesse, Richard Linklater has matured as a filmmaker. His beloved characters no longer discuss trivialities; they discuss such towering and significant topics as the purpose of love, the meaning of art, existential weariness, infidelity, careerism, raising children, and they reminisce but without any sappy nostalgia. Hearing Celine and Jesse’s witty, intimate reflections on life and love is not only enthralling; it is a life-affirming, privileging experience.
Linklater avoids the possibility that Before Midnight might seem more suited to the stage than the cinema, as the film is essentially just people talking. However, Before Midnight is undeniably cinematic. There are some very long Steadycam and dolly takes that weave in and out of locations, tracking Celine and Jesse’s footsteps through the visually magnificent Greek architecture and landscape. The film has a supremely naturalistic sense of movement and flow because of this – putting the ‘kinetic’ in ‘cinema’. In one early sequence, Celine and Jesse sit around a dinner table and discuss, with their Greek friends, the impermanence of human relationships. It is a long scene, but the camera moves delicately and subtly between each character as they speak, capturing the sumptuous food and striking environment in the process. When you compare this to the stagey and protracted dinner sequence in August: Osage County, Linklater is revealed as a director who clearly knows how to make excessive dialogue cinematically enrapturing.
There is so much inherent interest, universality and truth to the dialogue. Before Midnight features what is undoubtedly the year’s best screenplay, with its unique structure so naturally conveying how Celine and Jesse’s conversations progress. They transition from laughing and joking to aggressively arguing seamlessly, capturing the essence of any lengthy conversation with a close friend or loved-one. Delpy and Hawke are co-credited with Linklater as the screenwriters, and their minimal improvisations contribute to the verisimilitude. Delpy and Hawke give such pure, lived-in, real performances, and their physical gesticulations are as expressive as their skilful vocal modulations. Delpy and Hawke should be real-life lovers; they have the more natural chemistry than any other on-screen couple I can think of. The best film sequence of the year takes place towards the film’s climax, involving Celine and Jesse are in a hotel room, and it perfectly encapsulates this – but I won’t give anything else away, or how I interpret the scene, because it is such a delight to watch when knowing as little about it as possible.
The script does not prompt us to ponder the specifics of Celine and Jesse’s existential conversations after we leave the cinema. At times, we are prompted to consider our own relationships, using Celine and Jesse as a yardstick. But most importantly, we are interpolated into the story in such a way that we feel like Celine and Jesse’s friends. Despite the universal truths they verbosely debate, the film’s lasting impact on me was drawn from my consideration of Celine and Jesse’s future. Before Midnight’s conclusion is beautiful in its simple sentimentality and ambiguity.
Because I have never been in a long-term relationship, I feel as though Before Midnight will become even more emotionally poignant as I age and mature. I am much more like Celine and Jesse in Before Sunrise than Before Midnight. However, Before Midnight is my favourite film in this trilogy, and one of my favourite films of the 21st Century so far. It is a difficult film to critique because it is, in my opinion, flawless. Just thinking about how good this film is gives me chills.