Perfect ‘Before Midnight’ Captures Truth of Romance

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CHICAGO – Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” brilliantly captured the live-in-the-moment romanticism of youth, that time in our 20s when anything was possible before the dawn. “Before Sunset” depicted romance in a time when potential turns into actuality in our 30s, how we need to grab that chance at happiness before time runs out at twilight. “Before Midnight,” opening this weekend, takes the characters from these films, the beloved Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), a step further, perfectly capturing how long-term relationships are built both on decisions made and hopes for the future. Midnight ends one day but is also the middle of the night, moving on to the next adventure together with the weight of what came before and the knowledge that another day has begun. It is as remarkable a film as you’re likely to see this year, a true masterpiece that deserves to be a part of any conversation about the best films about relationships ever made.

Jesse has just dropped his son Hank off at a Greek airport and the goodbye has rattled him. As he drives with his wife Celine back through the Greek ruins, the landscape takes on a symbolic tone but it’s not overplayed. When one considers how much the history of these two and their indeterminate future will play in what is essentially the movie-long conversation that they’re about to undertake, it’s hard to believe that the opening setting contains no symbolism. They drive through ruins of the past that they talk about stopping and visiting but just keep moving through for the sake of the sleeping children, speaking of how they’ll come back later. Jesse and Celine definitely will come back to their own fears of the past and future later.

Before Midnight
Before Midnight
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

“Before Midnight” is essentially three scenes: The drive back from the airport, in which Jesse suggests that perhaps they may want to move to get closer to Hank while Celine mentions a potential job that would make that impossible, the prep for and eating of dinner with a few of their friends in Greece, and an hour-long walk to a hotel room in which Jesse & Celine are supposed to have a romantic night away from their children but the swirling conversations about their past and future gets intense.

“Before Sunset” ended with one of the most romantic moments in cinema history but it was a scene in which most heart-swollen viewers failed to recognize the truth that we were watching a man leave his wife and child when he stayed with Celine. “Midnight,” as much as any film I can remember, grasps that even the best, most romantic decisions come with repercussions. Perhaps if Jesse had shown more concern for his wife when he left her for Celine, there wouldn’t be such bad blood between them that impacts his relationship with Hank. Every decision, even the romantic ones, don’t just have an impact in a vacuum, they impact future decisions down the road – from getting off the train to staying with Celine to taking a walk to a hotel in Greece. They’re all linked.

Before Midnight
Before Midnight
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Don’t worry. I realize that I may be making “Before Midnight” and the entire series sound a bit like homework. It’s not. It can be adored purely on its own terms. As a showcase for its stars, they’ve never been better, especially Delpy. They seem incapable of hitting a false note as they know these characters so well by now that it’s easy to mistake Jesse & Celine for Ethan & Julie and forget that they’re even giving stellar performances. They feel that real, especially in the heated moments of the final hour in which these two co-writer/actors perfectly understand how couples argue. Ethan says things to Julie that he likely will regret, pushing buttons a little too far, but Celine will also likely look back on this fight as one that could have been avoided from her side as well. Neither character feels overly righteous or self-certain as so many romantic partnerships do in film. In reality, fights like the one that makes up the bulk of “Midnight” come from insecurity and concern as much as confidence and anger. Rarely, if ever, has that been captured this completely in a movie. They’ll never get the credit they deserve for their performances here because they’re not showy enough but they’re simply perfect.

As he was with “Sunset,” Linklater proves to be a masterful director just in how much he trusts his stars. He shoots much of “Midnight” in long, unbroken takes, just in front of or just behind Jesse & Celine as they walk through a beautiful Greek village. He works wonders by refusing to overcomplicate his film, doing so much more than just checking back in with his now-iconic characters but never underlining his themes or ideas about relationships. “Before Midnight” is a film that will work differently for people in their teens, forties, and seventies, and yet they’ll all have the same reaction – that feels real. We’re in a season of films that left reality at the first draft and genuine realism in a relationship film is rare any month of the year. “Before Midnight” is a rare film. It’s flawless.

“Before Midnight” stars Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy. It was written by Delpy, Hawke, & Richard Linklater and directed by Linklater. It opens in Chicago on May 31, 2013, expanding to more markets in June. content director Brian Tallerico

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