In 1995 Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy collaborated on a small independent film which centered around a burgeoning romance between an American man and French woman on the final day of his European vacation before flying home the next morning. Set against the backdrop of Vienna, Before Sunrise is the kind of movie romance, centered on two people meeting and falling love and honestly discussing their feelings, beliefs, and desires, that Hollywood has long since given up trying to make in favor of the type of contrived romantic comedies Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson are known for. It’s also the beginning of one of the least probable movie franchises ever conceived.
Nine years after making the original film, which ended with Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) parting ways with plans to reconnect in the near future, Linklater reconnected with his two stars and put out a sequel set in real time as the two star-crossed lovers reconnected for an afternoon on the streets of Paris in Before Sunset before Jesse was scheduled to fly back home that night.
Once again Linklater left audiences with an ambiguous ending and nine years later the director and stars come together one more time with Before Midnight. If the first two films in the series are about discovering and rediscovering that one great love in your life, getting to know them for the first and second time, the third film is about holding onto the that ideal of love even when life has done its best to run it into the ground. From the beginning of the film to its final scene two things are perfectly clear: 1) Jesse and Celine are still very much in love, and 2) their love is a more complicated, very much lived-in, love than the highly romanticized version from the first to films.
Nine years after the end of Before Sunset, Celine and Jesse are still together, living in France with a pair of beautiful twin daughters (Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior). The movie’s opening sequence reminds us immediately that this is a love story about complicated characters as Jesse says a painful goodbye to his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) from his previous marriage. The sequence deftly showcases how guilt-ridden Jesse is at shipping him back to his estranged ex-wife in the United States, knowing it will be months before he sees Hank again.
With their daughters dozing in the backseat, the film gives us a prolonged discussion and drive with Celine and Jesse touching on where the pair are in their lives today (as opposed to the last time we same them nine years ago) and presenting the beginning of an argument that will slowly fester before boiling over in the film’s final act. What Linklater and his stars (who, like the last film also help co-write the script) achieve here is an honest story between familiar characters that somehow feels both well-worn and fresh at the same time.
Much like the first two films the couple’s conversations while walking, driving, having dinner, sharing a drink, or simply alone in a hotel room vary from basic bullshitting, conflicting philosophies, and a type of raw emotion only those who have lived and loved each other for this long can truly manage. There’s certainly a little more malice in some of the things the couple says to each in the heat of the moment from picking old fights to this latest argument started by Jesse’s guilt at having to say goodbye to the son he feels he’s largely abandoned by choosing to uproot his life and live with Celine and their twin daughters in France.
Although quite different in tone, the third film in the franchise captures much of the magic of the original. An equally haggard Hawke and Delpy are fully formed characters who have had nearly two-decades to evolve. It’s like sitting down to dinner with a pair of friends you haven’t seen in a decade and catching up, realizing there is far more going on under the surface than the pair are ever going to share with you.
Shot in the Greek islands, once again Linklater chooses another beautiful European backdrop for what is mostly a series of conversations between the two characters, and, in some scenes, their friends (Ariane Labed, Yiannis Papadopoulos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally). As much of the film takes place in a home of friends, and later in a hotel room, the setting isn’t as big a character as the first two movies. However, the beautiful, but cracked and crumbling, ruins of Greece are certainly an intriguing mirror for the current state of Jesse and Celine’s relationship.