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Before Midnight
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Finally, A Summer Sequel Worth Seeing"
5 stars

Last week saw the release of "The Hangover Part III," a film that not only instantly became a contender for the title of worst movie of 2013 but also concluded what may be one of the worst screen trilogies of all time. (The only serious competition for that title that immediately comes to mind is the "Porky's" series and at least "Porky's Revenge" has an absolutely killer soundtrack going for it.) This was a cinematic event of such gruesome proportions that nothing short of some grand celluloid gift would be required to restore balance to the cultural scales. Luckily, that gift has already arrived in the form of Richard Linklater's absolutely gorgeous new film "Before Midnight." Not only is it one of the very best films of the year--not to mention of Linklater's already illustrious career--but it concludes, at least for now, one of the best and most unexpectedly rewarding of all movie trilogies, even though it may be one that relatively few moviegoers have ever even heard of before

The series began in 1995 with the release of "Before Sunrise," a wise and perceptive romantic comedy/drama in which two young people--American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy)--meet on a train traveling through Europe and impulsively decide to get off in Vienna and spend the entire night--Jesse's last before returning to the U.S.--walking the streets and talking about life and love and anything else that came to mind. Although this may sound like a precursor to the much-loathed mumblecore sub-genre, it proved to be infinitely more entertaining than any of those films thanks to a perceptive and intelligent screenplay by Linklater and Kim Krizan, deft direction that demonstrated that Linklater could handle two people talking for 90 minutes just as easily as he wrangled the sprawling casts that he deployed in films like "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused" and enormously likable performances from the two leads. The film was not a box-office hit by any stretch of the imagination but practically everyone who did encounter it fell in love with it and it eventually became a cult favorite.

Nine years later, Linklater was, thanks to the surprise success of his 2003 mainstream breakthrough "School of Rock," in a position where he could do most any film that he wanted. Instead of going down the path of comfortably bland formula films for the major studios, he reunited with Hawke and Delpy to quietly shoot "Before Sunset." Set nine years after the original and taking place in near-real time, this film found the now-married Jesse in France for the final stop of a book tour promoting his first novel, a story strikingly similar to that long-ago night in Vienna. Celine shows up at the reading and with an hour or so before Jesse has to catch a plane to go home to his wife and son in America, they decide to catch up by talking about where their lives have gone in the years since they last saw each other and musing about what might have happened if they had reunited six months after their first meeting as the promised. Even more personal and intimate than the original (so much so that Delpy and Hawke received credit for the screenplay along with Linklater), this proved to be the rare sequel to actually improve upon the original and concluded with what I firmly believe to be one of the greatest closing lines in screen history.

If you have not seen either "Before Sunrise" or "Before Sunset," I implore you to go out and see them now because while "Before Midnight" can certainly be admired on its own, it is the kind of film that will have the greatest payoff for viewers if they have seen its predecessors. Conversely, if you have seen those films and are planning on catching this one, you should probably set this and all other reviews aside for the time being so as to avoid having certain plot revelations spoiled for you. I must press on but be warned, I do have to reveal certain details in order to properly discuss what happens during it.

The big surprise comes right at the start with the revelation that not only did Jesse miss that plane back to America, he and Celine have been together ever since and while they have not yet gotten around to getting married, they do have twin daughters and appear to have fallen into a state of comfortable domesticity. As the film opens with the first of what will prove to be five extended sequences that make up the entire story, Jesse is at an airport in Greece sending his son back to his ex-wife in Chicago after having him for the summer and feeling pangs of regret that he is not able to be there for his son. In the second segment, Jesse and Celine are making the long drive to the island home where they have been spending the summer with other writers and amidst the normal chit-chat and silliness (such as when Jesse steals and eats a half-eaten apple from one of his daughters sleeping in the back seat, a couple of points of conflict begin to rear up and not, we suspect, for the first time. The politically engaged Celine has just been offered a government job in Paris that she is considering while Jesse is throwing out the possibility of moving the family from France to America so that he can assuage his guilt to some degree by being able to see his son every couple of weeks instead of only a couple of times a year.

In the third section, Jesse and Celine have a long lunch with friends and colleagues and discuss topics ranging from the technological to the emotional but in the end, it all comes back to male-female relationships, both the ease with which they start and the difficulties in maintaining them. For the most part, the banter is light enough but there is an edge to what Jesse and Celine have to say at time that suggests that they have been together long enough so that the dodges and shortcuts they have employed in the past to get around potentially tense moments are no longer effective in masking their true thoughts. As a surprise gift, their friends have offered to babysit the girls so that they can spend a final romantic night together at a nearby luxury hotel. The fourth segment finds them walking towards hotel and once again, the initial romantic banter is soon overtaken by talk of their kids, their careers and what their lives might have been like if they hadn't gotten back together. (At one point, Celine flat-out asks if Jesse would still chat her up on that train if he saw her for the first time today.) In the fifth and longest segment, they arrive at the hotel but just when everything seems ready for romance, their resentments finally boil over into an argument that continues on with such painful ferocity that it when it ends with all the finality of a slammed door, it seems as if there is nothing left between the two of them that will allow them to continue on together.

As I indicated earlier, I am a big fan of the films of Richard Linklater in general--he is one of those rare directors who seems incapable of making something boring or formulaic (even his remake of "The Bad News Bears" proved to be far smarter than it had any right to be)--and of "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" in particular. That said, even I was still surprised by the impact made by "Before Midnight." Taken just on its own merits, it is a beautiful piece of filmmaking with some of the best writing to come along in quite some time--at a time when most movie conversations are essentially designed to be placeholders taking us from one action scene to the next, it is such a relief to hear characters in a movie having intelligent conversations about real and important subjects. There are plenty of hilarious lines of dialogue but they are funny because they have the ring of truth to them and not the clang of someone trying to shoehorn in some one-liners. Likewise, the more dramatic moments--especially when they start arguing in earnest--also work because they are borne from emotions that viewers will instantly recognize from their own lives and not because a screenwriter needs the characters to get mad at each to get from one act to the next while setting up some false dramatic epiphanies for the third act.

However, if you have followed Celine and Jesse over the course of the two earlier films, "Before Midnight" pays off in extraordinary ways. It would have been easy enough to keep them behaving in the same glib and charming manner that they displayed in the previous installments and I no doubt that an entertaining film would have been the result. However, none of us--not the people on the screen, behind the camera or sitting in the audience--are the same people that we were 18 years ago. People get older, priorities change and behaviors that might have seemed charming back then now have the power to set one's teeth on edge. Linklater and his actors recognize that and this time around, they have given us a film that is both deeper and darker in many ways than before. Celine and Jesse are still as likable of a couple as has appeared on the screen in recent times but this time around, their flaws--his tendency towards glibness when things get tough and her tendency towards a certain degree of unpleasant self-righteousness--are no longer so easy to hide or ignore. The final segment is a tricky high-wire act that works as well as it does because of how well Hawke and Delpy (both of whom have never been better than they are here) know their characters and because of how much they obviously trust each other and Linklater.
, it is them.

"Before Midnight" is an absolutely fantastic film that is as close to sheer perfection that you are likely to experience in a movie theater this season. For fans of the previous films, it is an ideal culmination to the series and for Richard Linklater, it is yet another high point in a career that is already filled with them. The only question remaining is whether we will be seeing a fourth film in 2022 charting the further adventures of Celine and Jesse. On the one hand, considering the wonderful results of their previous collaborations, there is a part of me that would love to check in with them as I might with old and dear friends to see what has become of them. On the other hand, this film ends on such a correct and ultimately satisfying note that even Linklater & Co. might have trouble figuring out where to go from there. Then again, if there is anyone out there who is up to that particular challenge

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originally posted: 05/31/13 10:53:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/19/13 Elizabeth Wonderful! I love this trilogy. 5 stars
6/16/13 John One of the best films ever made. 5 stars
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