I have a confession to make. Until a couple of days before I went to see Before Midnight, I hadn’t seen any of the films in Richard Linklater’s critically acclaimed Before… trilogy. So, having heard that if one hasn’t seen the first two before diving into the most recent one, that something would be lost, I immediately resolved to seek out and watch the first two, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. And to put it bluntly, I’m glad I did.
But this post isn’t about the first two films in the trilogy, as excellent as they are. This is about the most recent, and finest, part of the trilogy – Before Midnight. Perhaps the most interesting about it from the off is that it doesn’t follow the same structure as the first two. Instead, Jesse and Celene (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who are on peak form) are together and have children. What this does is opens a completely different door in terms of both story and characterisation, as we see these two characters in a completely new situation, dealing with problems that they’ve never had to before (at least not together). In fact, there’s a lot about Before Midnight that quite explicitly differentiates it from its predecessors. It’s got the largest cast of principle characters, and perhaps the biggest scale as well, especially given that locations are stopped at rather than passed through. This increase in scale also seems to come through in an increased tonal and thematic breadth. It’s possibly the funniest of the three films, with a surprising amount of laugh out loud films. And what Before Midnight does wonderfully, perhaps by breaking from the courtship mould of Sunrise and Sunset, is touch on new thematic ground for the series, including a wonderful and heartwarming speech on the notion of “passing through.”
Of course, the core trinity of the series (Linklater behind the camera, along with Delpy and Hawke behind it, and all of them contributing to the script) just seem to get better and better with each passing film. Linklater becomes more assured, a directorial development shown in its fullest during the film’s climax where it returns to what it does best: Jesse and Celene in a room, talking. But more on that later. Hawke and Delpy give their strongest performances thus far in the trilogy, and perhaps of their careers, getting their teeth into excellent material, and with their powerhouse performances manage to grip an audience through an almost two hour duration of what is, when distilled to its essence, people talking.
As I mentioned before, the hotel scene is the film’s highlight. It’s wonderfully shot, showing the hotel room to be both desirable and suffocating, as Jesse and Celene go verbally at each other, holding no punches. Perhaps for the first time in the series, we see the characters stripped of all artifice and courting pretence, as they are forced, by both the other and themselves, to finally face up to their demons, and the almost self destructive tendencies that drive them apart each time they get closer to each other, even now they’re married. It is here that Before Midnight deals with themes of inevitability, the end of love, and harsh realities that they are forced to face.
Before Midnight is exactly what fans of the series will expect, and even more. As natural as ever, the chemistry between Delpy and Hawke is nothing short of faultless, and the performances are excellent, particularly from the leading duo, but also from the surrounding cast members. The notion of a script can be forgotten, nothing feels written, it is as if we are simply watching their lives unfold. Melancholic and moving, funny and savage, Before Midnight is utterly exceptional, a subtle, and utterly sublime piece of filmmaking, destined to be one of the years best.