Built around a refreshingly simple concept, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were also predicated on a potential tonal conflict: Movies concerned with the revelatory power of serious discussion, they also operated within a transparent daydream scenario, with serendipitous encounters, picture-postcard settings, and irrational declarations of love at first sight. It’s a testament to the filmmakers that they were able to shape this into a workable dynamic, using a rigorous basis of well-scripted discourse to ground an otherwise far-fetched story, a balance which allowed for serious shading on romantic tropes without fully surrendering to frothy fantasy.
That tension couldn’t be sustained perpetually, however, and it’s satisfying to find the series crossing a perceptible boundary with Before Midnight. Picking up on the saga of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) after the now-requisite nine years of silence, the story continues to grow, this time by weighing down the fantasy angle with heaps of pragmatic ballast. Unmarried but united by children and a host of mundane responsibilities, the former trans-Atlantic soul mates are now a committed couple, no longer just a theoretical entity ready to be activated for another round of flirty debate. They have history and obligations, in addition to a growing sense of conjugal exhaustion, feelings made to seem even more prominent by the looming ruins of the film’s Greek setting.
There are other clear differences between Before Midnight and its predecessors, from the inclusion of new characters to the lack of a dangling time limit, but the greatest change has to be this onset of middle-aged weariness, which adds a measure of levity not present in either of the previous films. At the tail end of a six-week vacation in the southern Peloponnese, the couple relaxes at the expansive home of a Greek novelist, their banter with the other guests introducing familiar topics of sex, gender, love, and politics. Gifted an oceanfront hotel room for their last night in the country, the two begrudgingly take up the offer, strolling through a picturesque village on their way to the shore. It’s their first chance to be alone, which means it’s also an occasion for nagging concerns to flare up, with the usual flirty interplay steadily building into a tense battle of wills.
The initial bickering stems from Jesse’s frustrations about his teenage son, who lives with his mother in Chicago, meaning that his visits are isolated to summer and Christmas vacations. But eight years of history means that no argument is ever about just one thing, and the same delirious magnetism that impelled the couple through two films worth of mutual infatuation now has an opposite effect, dredging up the bitterness of old fights and unresolved fears. All this is enveloped by vague impressions of disaster. Celine references Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, and some initial similarities between that film and this one seem to foretell bad things to come. The discussions are so realistically convoluted, however, and so divided between positive and negative moments, that it’s impossible to tell whether they’re heading toward reconciliation or destruction. The conversational beats and patterns are the same as they always were, but something heavier has developed here; the magic has dissipated, and the realities of everyday life have eaten away at the edges of their storybook romance.
The downside is that, despite an impressive script enlivened by fully conceived characters, natural acting, and languorous long takes, Before Midnight never feels especially cinematic. It may not be fair to compare Linklater to Abbas Kiarostami, but considering the sunny southern European setting and one long scene shot through a car windshield, Before Midnight seems to acknowledge a debt to Certified Copy, a movie that explored similar issues of fatigue, with an equally pronounced focus on talk. The difference is that Kiarostami’s masterpiece felt firmly like a movie, with a dense layer of visual imagery adding inflection and color to the verbal sparring. Linklater’s film devotes the bulk of its attention to words, while the camera tags along ineffectually, mostly concerned with leaving the actors space to perform.
Yet what the film lacks in technical ambition it usually makes up for in linguistic dexterity; this is still a resoundingly solid piece of craft, from a collaborative group that’s clearly invested in the development of this story. The lack of a defined visual perspective may leave things feeling slightly stagey, but the meticulous construction of these conversations, so loose and lively despite their airtight scripting, is enough for Before Midnight to feel like a major accomplishment. These films have always been about the power of words, their ability to bridge gulfs of time and space, the thrill of ideas and opinions taking definitive shape. But as the characters age, they’re also less about fantasy; the spaces between these two people were once pools of idealized mystery. Now they’re clogged by years of trauma and conflict. Whether you live in Paris or Chicago or amid the ancient splendor of Greece, ideal love never stays unspoiled forever; even the strongest feelings sometimes fade, irrespective of the desires of either party, and while words have the capacity to heal, they have just as much power to hurt.