Movie Review: Before Midnight
By Matthew Huntley
June 19, 2013
As human beings, we are naturally curious about ourselves. No matter how long we live or the number of experiences we take in, there remains a constant mystery surrounding our individual and collective life stories, which I suppose is one of the driving forces behind living in the first place - the idea that someday we’ll figure it all out and unravel the purpose and meaning behind our existence. It’s also one of the reasons we’re drawn to art that focuses on the simplicity and complexity of being human, because we feel it’s about us and therefore provides us insight into our own nature.
Before Midnight, much like its predecessors, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, is about the art of conversation and the notion of learning about ourselves and others through it. All three films are sneaky in the way they develop their characters and “plots” simply by having the leads talk to each other. They have an assured and natural rhythm that’s almost hypnotic, and even though they talk about things that are seemingly mundane and only affect them, we still find their conversations engaging - probably because we feel we’ve had similar ones and it’s easy to relate.
Although the movie credits three writers - Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke - I’m curious if the screenplay is just a series of locations and broad strokes action rather than explicit dialogue. It wouldn’t surprise me if the characters’ discussions were mostly improvised by the actors, given their off-the-cuff quality and they take place during takes that are uncommonly long. Whatever the case, they’re a joy to listen to, and like so many things related to human nature, it’s hard to explain why.
The film picks up nine years after we last left Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy), who are now officially together as a romantic couple, although they are not married. They live in Europe and have been vacationing in Greece for six weeks with Jesse’s son from a previous marriage and their two daughters, who we learn are always asking what their wedding was like. Why Jesse and Celine haven’t yet tied the knot isn’t fully explained, but we assume it has something to do with their liberal, anti-conformist ideals, or maybe they didn’t want to risk it ending in divorce since he’s already traveled down that road.
One might say the major conflict in Before Midnight is whether Jesse and Celine will make it to the end of the day and still be together. After Jesse puts his 14-year-old son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) on a plane back to his ex-wife in Chicago, he’s saddened by the fact he lives so far away and can’t be with Hank during his crucial formative years. He hints at the possibility that he, Celine and the girls should move to America, but Celine won’t hear of it. She and Jesse’s ex-wife apparently have a tumultuous history, plus she’s been offered a great job in Paris. We also get the sense she doesn’t want to move purely out of principle - she loathes the idea she should be expected to drop everything and follow Jesse, fearing she’ll become just another servile housewife. Although, to be fair, Jess doesn’t expect this of her.
The film is filled with engaging dialogue, whether it’s about broad, significant subjects like aging, death and fidelity, or more trivial topics like who cleans up around the house. Waiting in the wings is Jesse and Celine’s doomed conversation about moving, which they’ve been putting off as they walk to a hotel to spend their final night in Greece together. We listen intently and the actors do a remarkable job of making their interactions feel random, organic and genuine.
I know the “Before” films aren’t for everybody. Many viewers claim nothing happens in them and they’re ultimately inconsequential. But I disagree and think those kinds of reactions are based on the idea that stories and characters must always be bound by a plot that ties them together with a definite beginning, middle and end. There’s nothing wrong with a traditional structure, except when it’s too traditional, and I think films like Before Midnight are refreshing because they feel free from the shackles of a routine architecture. The characters can pretty much do and talk about whatever they want at any given time, which makes the entire filmic experience more spontaneous.
I’m not suggesting any film can or should follow around characters talking about any old subject. What makes Before Midnight special is that director Linklater and stars Hawke and Delpy are able to make what Jesse and Celine talk about interesting, topical and heartfelt. They teach and remind us about the complexity of relationships and the uncertainties associated with them, which serves as useful reiteration about who we are and contributes toward our continued development as people.