In the opening scene of Richard Linklater’s new film, “Before Midnight,” Ethan Hawke’s Jesse sees his teenage son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), off at an airport in Greece. Hawke is still as floppy-haired and artfully disheveled as ever, with a skintight T-shirt and a goatee straight out of 1995, like a refugee from “Reality Bites.” But when Hank boards the plane, carrying him back to his mother in the United States, an enormous knot of worry spreads across Jesse’s forehead, a canyon emerging between his eyes.
With his Neptune Records T-shirt, Jesse (and Hawke, too) seems, at first, to have hardly aged a day since first showing up in Vienna some 18 years ago in “Before Sunrise” (1995), the first installment of Linklater’s romantic trilogy. But the 20-something manchild of “Before Sunrise” and the 30-something first-time novelist of “Before Sunset” (2004) is now a 40-something father of three, and his face bears the evidence. The moment is surprising and unexpected, a reminder of the passage of time, onscreen and off-, and an indication of the rare cinematic company to which “Before Midnight” belongs. “What can I say?” Jesse asks of Celine (Julie Delpy). “It’s tough out there in time and space.”
The effect is, if anything, more dramatic with Celine. The waifish blonde beauty of “Before Sunrise” has now thickened around the middle, and refers to herself as a “fat . . . middle-aged mom losing her hair.” The description is inapt — Delpy is still lovely — but Linklater’s camera does not lie. There is no Vaseline smeared on the lens or soft focus employed here. In this movie about what it means to love someone over time, we must see time pass. The film, like its predecessors, is another extended conversation, this time weighed down by middle-aged regret and the onset of mortality. Celine and Jesse picture the prospect of 56 more years together, like Jesse’s grandparents, and are terrified and attracted by the notion.
“Before Midnight” bucks the American film’s persistent desire to elide the reality of aging and the ravages of time. It is the latest member of the relatively rare but longstanding subset of films interested in depicting the passage of time through the revisiting of familiar roles. If the American film is, in some ways, a denial of death, in which performers like Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts appear to look the same forever, these are the counter-examples, deriving enormous emotional impact from seeing the effects of time, familiar from our own lives, reflected in the images of these familiar faces.
Sequels are now endemic in contemporary film, but most seem to take place in a wholly atemporal realm in which nothing changes except the gadgets and the villains. James Bond may change performers, but he never visibly ages. Contrary to a film like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which uses special effects to age — and then render more youthful — Brad Pitt, there are other films that understand that the most profound special effect of all is time itself.
John Wayne as a dying gunslinger in “The Shootist” (1976), Marlon Brando as a Mafia don in “The Freshman” (1990), Clint Eastwood as a reluctant killer in “Unforgiven” (1992) — each leans on our memories of those performers in other, similar roles. Wayne is still swaggering and jaunty, Eastwood still leathery and tight-lipped, but both have aged dramatically from their John Ford or Sergio Leone days. Paul Newman steps back into the skin of Fast Eddie Felson some 25 years after “The Hustler” to train another young upstart in “The Color of Money” (1986). They are all returning to the roles, or the kinds of roles, that made them famous, but the roles that once fit them perfectly are now misshapen, awkwardly youthful for men of their advanced age.
Our heroes are suddenly, shockingly mortal. Charlie Chaplin plays a Tramp-esque performer fallen on lean times in “Limelight” (1952), teaming up with fellow silent-film icon Buster Keaton for an onstage routine in the film’s most famous scene. Chaplin and Keaton are as limber and expressive as ever, which renders it all the more confounding that the eternally young masters of comedy could suddenly have become so old. Even John Travolta lighting up the dance floor in “Pulp Fiction” (1994) immediately calls up memories of “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), and the difference between the lithe, whip-thin Tony Manero and the bulkier Vincent Vega.
Extending and heightening this sense of surprise at the aging process, there are also the once-ubiquitous performers whose quasi-grotesque reappearance is a kind of shock, a memento mori, like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) and Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” (2008). Then there are films that use actual footage from actors’ past roles to accentuate the gap between past and present, like Steven Soderbergh’s borrowing images from Ken Loach’s “Poor Cow” to serve as youthful flashbacks for Terence Stamp’s character in “The Limey.”
In its own quiet, unsentimental way, the “Before” trilogy echoes perhaps the most famous cinematic experiment in temporality of all time: Michael Apted’s “Up” films. Selecting 20 7-year-olds in 1964 as emblems of the England of the 20th century, Apted has returned every seven years since to catch up on their lives. Unlike the “Up” cohort, Celine and Jesse are fictional characters. But the movie camera ultimately does not care about the difference between reality and fantasy. It is fascinated, more than anything else, by the play of light on skin, and the delicate changes time plays on those surfaces.Saul Austerlitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.