There’s a certain alchemy that goes into getting the final act of a trilogy right. The audience craves resolution, and at the same time a sense that the story will somehow continue on, even after the credits roll. Director Richard Linklater achieves this complicated magic with Before Midnight, the highly anticipated follow-up to his existential romances Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which tell the story of two young lovers who fall in love during a night in Vienna together, only to lose touch and reunite nine years later during an afternoon in Paris.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return as Jesse and Celine, nearly a decade after the events of the last film, which ended with Jesse in Celine’s apartment, dangerously close to missing a plane back to his wife and son in New York. The first moments of Before Midnight quickly establish that Jesse did indeed “miss that plane.” He and Celine are now together, with two kids of their own, and when we meet them they’re enjoying the last day of a six-week vacation in Greece.
As their lives have become more complex, so too has the structure and landscape of the narrative. While long takes of the couple walking and talking among beautiful scenery remain, their world also expands to include daily mundanities: grocery shopping, preparing dinner, taking the kids to the beach. Their magical love story has now entered the real world, and much of the film deals with both characters attempting to reconcile the notion of “true love” with the realities of everyday life.
The film is composed of about five major scenes that get the audience up to speed with what the characters lives have been like since last we saw them. Jesse is a successful novelist, racked with the guilt of living in Paris with Celine, thousands of miles away from his 13-year-old son in Chicago. This guilt, and Celine’s objection to moving to the U.S. to be closer to the son, serves as the catalyst for an argument that threads its way throughout the film. While the couple still share the existential debates that made them fall for each other in Before Sunrise, their conversations are more weighty, swinging back and forth from discussions about life, love, and art to heated arguments about the very future of their relationship.
Hawke and Delpy, who share writing credits with Linklater as they did on Before Sunset, have reached a level of comfort and familiarity with both their roles and each other that makes for the most exposed and daring portrayals of the characters in all three films. Like its predecessors, Before Midnight’s derives its success from the unsentimental alchemy of its frank dialogue, chemistry between its two leads, and Linklater’s deceptively simple visual style. Nostalgia isn’t just part of the film’s charm, it’s also its muse.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 17—27.