One of the most anticipated films at this year’s Berlinale is perhaps one of its most determinedly low-key. Director Richard Linklater’s languorous, charming Before Midnight is the third in his series (following 1994‘s Before Sunrise and 2004‘s Before Sunset) tracking the relationship between American expat Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy).
Here, we pick up with the couple (now tickling their 40s, and parents to adorable twin girls) on a Greek island where they’ve spent the summer holidaying away from their home in Paris. Jesse is struggling to maintain his relationship with his 13-year-old son, while Celine finds herself at a career crossroads, and is tempted by the offer of a government job. Prompted by his feelings of grief after seeing his son fly back to Chicago to live with his mother, a stray (though perhaps subconsciously intentional) comment from Jesse leads Celine to believe that he wants them to up sticks and move to America. The spectre of an impending move acts as the catalyst for the film’s drama.
Well, I say drama, but this being Linklater (the most naturally laidback of American directors), the action is decidedly low-key. The film’s style, like its predecessors, is in its own quiet way fairly radical, bearing more in common with European arthouse cinema than American mainstream. Jesse and Celine, plus a host of supporting cast members at the Greek villa, shoot the breeze and ruminate about life and love in a series of long, meandering takes, all elegantly and simply framed. As witnessed most explicitly in Waking Life and the prior Before... films, Linklater is an auteur in love with ideas, and clearly believes in the potential for poetry in unselfconscious expression. Sure, he runs the risk of lapsing into pretension or banality – and the pace does occasionally drag here – but what’s wrong with ruminating?
Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy).
Subtly captured micro-aggressions build up between Jesse and Celine during the course of the day, and finally explode in the scene for which Before Midnight is most likely to be remembered – a protracted argument in a hotel room in which the pair circle, contradict and prod each other battle-of-the-sexes style, with the upper hand shifting by the second. It’s by turns laugh-out-loud funny (Delpy’s delivery of a string of one-liners is perfection) and intensely moving. It’s one of the most painfully accurate depictions of a lovers’ quarrel I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Both Hawke and Delpy deserve immense credit for their subtle, understated work here. It’s a big ask to expect an audience to hang on their every word, and if they weren’t empathetic, truthful, real characters, the film would run the risk of being smug and unwatchable. Hawke and Delpy share script credits with Linklater, and it’s abundantly clear how much they care for, and understand their characters inside out.
Amazingly (though we perhaps shouldn’t be too surprised), Linklater leaves us wanting even more of Jesse and Celine as the final credits roll. There’s a conversational thread that runs throughout the film about whether or not Jesse will still find Celine attractive when they’re in their 80s. Here’s hoping that we find out. (Though what the film’s title will be at that point is anyone’s guess.)
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