The Rick-trospective: Before Midnight

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In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.

“Still there … still there … still there … still there… gone.” So says Celine as she and Jesse sit watching the sun set on Greece’s seaside, and we hope she’s only talking about the sun. In Before Midnight, Richard Linklater puts one of cinema’s great romances to the test, and the result reminds us of its magic without sugar-coating the difficulties of a long-term relationship.

When Before Sunset came out in 2004, nine years after Before Sunrise, It was an utterly delightful surprise. Linklater reunited with stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke—this time collaborating with them on the screenplay—to see their characters meet again, nine years after their day of conversation and romance. Linklater bragged about Sunset being the lowest-grossing film to ever spawn a sequel. So when Before Midnight was announced, its existence wasn’t quite so unexpected, but it was hard to imagine a premise that would work.

However, once the movie came out, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke’s choices were so spot-on that they seemed obvious. Of course Jesse and Celine became a couple—the third encounter would have felt rather forced if they hadn’t made something of their relationship after getting a second chance. And the setting is still exotic, in this case Greece—and their friends have bought them a night in a hotel away from their twin daughters—because they need a unique setting to spark interactions outside of their everday routine.

Before Midnight is the first movie of the series in which the title doesn’t refer to a transportation departure deadline. This discrepancy begs the question, is this the midnight of their relationship, or simply a reference to enjoying a night alone before the carriage of their special night out turns back into the pumpkin of normal life?

Delpy and Hawke are good in all three films, but in Midnight they reach new levels of depth as their characters grapple with middle age and the crises that come with it. A brilliant 13-minute scene of Celine and Jesse driving from the airport establishes where they’re at in life in one continuous performance. In the whole scene, there’s only one cutaway from the two-shot of the couple in the car (to a view of ruins), and Linklater has said that the cut wasn’t used to alter or swap the take.

But the really remarkable moments come during the last hour of the film, in which the characters finally have some alone time together. The camera follows them on a nice walk through ruins and into town, during which they sweet-talk and reminisce. Once they get to their hotel, however, a fight begins to simmer, then erupt. The scene is amazing in the way Celine and Jesse latch onto little things, then manipulate and amplify them until it crescendos into a series of cheap shots and painful jabs.

The biggest difference between this and the previous two films is a key one: other people. Sunrise and Sunset consist almost entirely of Jesse and Celine connecting with each other. The pair still spend more than an hour in one-on-one conversation, so there’s plenty of the deep interaction that defined the series. But the other characters help underline that such intimacy isn’t common or easy.

Celine isn’t in the opening scene, as Jesse drops his son at the airport to send him back to Chicago after spending the summer with him in Greece. That scene is key, as it sets up a sense of regret that pervades the characters’ psyches. When the pair reunited in Before Sunset, they met with the hindsight of just how special their connection was. Their greatest regret was missing out on each other. In Before Midnight, that’s no longer an issue, and they’ve had years to let other hangups creep into their minds.

If Jesse were in Chicago with his son, he’d surely be regretting all the other things he missed out on. But because he only gets to see him the summer, and feels awful about neglecting the boy, it’s the part that looms largest. Jesse comments that humankind is “perpetually discontented,” and that perfectly expresses his inability to be completely satisfied. It’s hard to ignore the parts of life that you screwed up.

When the movie premiered at Sundance, Linklater said that he didn’t see the Before series as being about the passage of time, perhaps because the production of Boyhood was occupying all his thoughts on that matter. But the nature of the trilogy makes it impossible not to remember the previous installments with nostalgia, and reflect upon how the characters changed over the years. Likewise, the content of the previous films grows new layers of contexts with the latest material. “I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing,” Jesse says to Celine in one of his most bitter moments. Hence the perfect ending of Before Sunset has a slightly sadder association as we take greater consideration of the marriage that it ended.

At the end, we don’t know if Celine and Jesse can make it work long-term, if their frustrations have simply reached their height before calming or if the love is fading for good. But Linklater leaves us on a note of happiness, as these two lovely characters touchingly remind each other why they fell so hard in the first place. We may or may not find out more in a followup, but we do know that magic can still be found by the shimmering sea during a summer’s night in Greece.

21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.