Some movies have surprise endings. One of the greatest belongs to 2004’s “Before Sunset,” when Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) end their romantic reunion on the banks of the Seine with a playful fade-out and the words “Baby, you are going to miss that train.”
By contrast, “Before Midnight” — the third in the series begun with 1995’s “Before Sunrise” and possibly the richest, riskiest, and most perceptive — has a surprise beginning. If, like a lot of us, you feel anything for these characters, you probably want to skip this review until you’ve seen the movie. I’m serious. Go watch the first two again, then the new one, then come back when you’re ready.
. . .
The surprise, of course, is that these two are still together nine years after that fade-out, unmarried but with a pair of dreamily rambunctious twin girls played by Jennifer and Charlotte Prior. Richard Linklater’s first two “Before” movies — written by him in tandem with the stars — renewed the dream of romantic connection for a generation predisposed to doubt it, and their charm was immense. “Before Sunrise” was about the ardor of being in your early 20s, when you’re still figuring out who you are, and it was alive with the chatter of possibilities and the thrill of finding a like mind. “Before Sunset” was even more glorious, because it hinted at the ordinary tragedy of the early 30s — when it dawns on us that we may be stuck with what we have — only to gamble everything on bliss.
And then? Then comes the task of making it last. Like the others, “Before Midnight” is full of talk, much of it funny or touching or both, but it’s a mature work, as befits a story about people in their 40s (and shot by a director in his 50s). The first film was about discovery, the second about re-discovery. The third is about what happens when lovers have discovered everything they can about each other and then feel the night moving in.
Which, honestly, doesn’t sound like much of a reason to go to the movies. If you’re in a marriage or a long-term relationship, the early scene in which Celine and Jesse take a long drive, the twins asleep in the back, Linklater’s camera parked stolidly on the hood, may feel as if you’re watching your own private reality show. The two compare schedules, make each other laugh, touch on old resentments, retreat before anger can flare. Why pay for something you can get at home for free?
Well, they’re not home, for one thing — they’re in Greece, in the southern Peloponnese, at the end of a long summer vacation. Jesse has just put Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), his teenage son from a previous marriage, on a plane, and he’s stricken with guilt over his distance from the kid. “You feel confident about making the connection?” he asks at the airport. “Before Midnight” is about just those two things, confidence and connection — whether we ever have any idea what we’re doing and whether we can ever share our life with another person.
Hawke is still playing Jesse as a likable jerk, smart enough to be nervous about his shortcomings. Delpy, a filmmaker in her own right, with “2 Days in Paris” (2007) and “2 Days in New York” (2012), gives her character both greater assurance and a deeper sense of frustration this time around. “If we were meeting on a train for the first time, would you find me attractive? As I am now?” Celine asks at one point. To Jesse, it’s another of his partner’s no-win questions. To her, it’s the only question worth asking.
They share their seaside villa with three other couples, each a bookmark on a chapter of togetherness. The owners are a serene elderly writer (Walter Lassally) and his girlfriend (Xenia Kalogeropoulou) who’ve outlived their various battles. There’s a fractious pair of locals (Panos Koronis and Athina Rachel Tsangari) and two 20-somethings (Yianni Papadopoulous and Ariane Lebed) rapturously in love — they met like Celine and Jesse once did but kept in touch via Skype, which makes one ponder whether our wired world makes love too easy or just more possible.
Over the course of a lazy afternoon punctuated by dinner, a crisis under the surface gathers force, held at bay by sunlight, fellow feeling, bright conversation. The men talk about writing and the wonder of women; the women about life and the absurdity of men. As with the earlier films, nothing really happens, yet the air is electric with ideas and shared experience. There’s a deeply rooted fondness to Celine and Jesse’s relationship, and we can see through it all the way back to that first train ride to Vienna. Yet the original spark of their romance lay in distance and serendipity, and at last they’re together. So now what?
It’s a fundamental question, if not a new one, and in “Before Midnight” it feels vibrantly present — the paradox of how to merge separate selves into something meant to function each and every day. Celine wants to come out of the cold of working for a nonprofit and get a government job in Paris; Jesse wants to move them all back to the States so he can be near Hank. Each is starting to feel like a martyr to their respective compromises. Every exchange, every word of banter in which they (and we) delight, comes to seem both endearment and threat.
The film’s third act is a tour de force. Celine and Jesse head off to a hotel for a romantic evening without the kids, and it’s as if Linklater and his actors were charting every square inch of the domestic boxing ring, from exhausted horniness to trench warfare and back again. The scene ebbs and flows beautifully, the couple scaling the peaks of bitterness, falling back to a wary, trusting plateau, making a further ascent. Does it ever end? Only if someone has the foolishness or guts to say the one thing you should never, ever say to your partner.
There’s much to love in that scene, much to be discomfited by. Celine is topless for a chunk of it, first erotically and then with the matter-of-factness of a woman so used to being naked around her man that it no longer holds any meaning. (She also gets off a laceratingly funny description of Jesse’s lovemaking techniques, and caps it off with what, for a writer, has to be the ultimate insult: “You’re no Henry Miller, on every level.”)
That said, Jesse may end up the more naked, in his weaknesses and fear of being alone. “Before Midnight” isn’t a scorched-earth special like Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage” — it acknowledges the comforts of intimacy and the great fun of teasing. But these characters and the people creating them have grown older over two decades and three films, and so have we. Like Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries, Linklater’s series is the kind of time-lapse study of human nature that’s possible only in the movies, and the more you think about it, the more humbling it becomes.
“We’re not fighting, we’re negotiating,” Jesse insists at one point, and you could argue that every moment in the “Before” films is about two people haggling over issues of attraction, provocation, respect, love, sex, art, philosophy, parenting, and how much space it takes to live this close to someone without losing yourself. By now, everyone involved is too old to believe in closure. That said, the surprise of this film’s ending is its steady, unblinking vision of stalemate — of Celine and Jesse wanting to leave and scared to leave.
See you in nine years. I hope.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.