You know what might seem like a can’t win question? “I’m going to see a movie this weekend, I live in New York or LA, now do I go see The Hangover Part III (2013) or Fast & Furious 6 (2013)?” These are two major franchises that promise a crazy time for around two hours. But I’ll tell you what, there’s a third franchise out there and if this were a periodical of some kind that you didn’t have to click on to read, you might be surprised to know that I’m talking about Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013). In all seriousness, as someone who goes to see a lot of movies in the theater or on DVD or Blu-Ray, I often consider the monetary value of watching movies. What’s the justification of spending $10-$16 on something that lasts just two hours? The answer lies in the question, what lasts you more than two hours? You don’t really know what you’re getting into with a movie, there’s a risk attached, but when you look at something like The Hangover Part III and Before Midnight, to an extent you’ve already resolved the dilemma. And why not wait? Because you don’t always look both ways before you cross the road.
About eighteen years ago, God has it been that long, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) asked Celine (Julie Delpy) to get off the train with him in Vienna and walk the city until sunrise. Nine years later, Jesse was on a book tour, selling his novelization of that experience and the two meet up in Paris and spent a few hours walking the city before Jesse had to catch his flight back to the States to his wife and child. Nine years after that, Jesse and Celine are in Greece with their kids. Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), Jesse’s child from the prior marriage, is going home after their summer and it sparks some major paternal chords. Jesse and Celine live in Paris now and only seeing Hank twice a year is increasingly frustrating. That night is their last in Greece and their friends have gifted them a romantic night in a hotel suite. They walk to the hotel and talk.
I see this series of movies so differently than they’re packaged, I sometimes wonder whether I’m peculiar or the promotional staff just doesn’t get it. I thought Before Sunrise (1995) was basically great (my review), Before Sunset (2004) was a good follow up (my review), and now with Before Midnight, I feel like Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have made the best dramatic trilogy I’ve ever seen. Each movie enhances the experience of the other and all together, they’ve created a perfect, whole relationship. All the while, it’s funny, simple, and moving. Before Midnight is especially moving because I’ve seen these characters in their younger days being utterly romantic and in nine years you can see some erosion. Still, you look at that poster composite below and it looks so contemplative and angsty when it absolutely isn’t. They’re so relaxed with each other and the stakes are never taken to be more than two people’s emotional fulfillment that angst doesn’t come into it.
You can also see Linklater’s progression as a director and tastes for cinematography (cinematographer for Before Midnight is Christos Voudouris and the other two are Lee Daniel). It’s almost too clear to be real. It goes from the somewhat experimental to a little more stayed, but still active, and finishes with a camera so steady, it’d be static if they weren’t walking so much. If there’s any downside to this, it’s that the setting becomes less important and even that can be poured into a meaningful cast. It reflects their lives such that their obligations have become so great and their opportunity for absolute selfishness so small that walking down an idyllic Greek town is more useful as unfrustrated exercise than it is a chance to check out the beautiful scenery.
Sometimes I have this thought in a movie of what a less charitable viewer might think. I thought, “Some people might find this couple’s unchanged style of conversation to be a contrived annoyance when see for the third time, like, make a difference movie!” I wonder whether that’s a projection of my own thoughts in the moment against a self-imposed filter I’ve created—i.e. I’m supposed to like this, but I don’t—or I’m condescending towards people by not thinking them able to allow this mild conceit or if it’s a little of both. That thought goes away completely, though, by the final third of the movie because while two thirds is basically picking up where Before Sunset left off, the final third is entirely its own. Thus, the conversation is simply a hallmark of these characters. That’s how they talk to each other and when they talk to each other differently, when they seriously argue, that’s where you see the character development that was just underneath the surface of the first part of the movie. It’s all in there and it just didn’t show its hand until the story dictated.
Before Midnight is so honest and so resonant with my own views on the way people behave, much like Frances Ha (2013) (review). The difference is that the story of Before Midnight resonates just as much as the chemistry and characters. There’s no cheating in Before Midnight at all. There is one possible cheat, but this movie has earned every ounce of it and more through the prior two films. The very first scene of the movie struck me as exceptional. I’ve never seen a father/son scene done better. Jesse and Hank are at the airport and Jesse is fussing. Have you remembered this, don’t give up piano, try out for the soccer team because team sports are important, do you have your passport, etc. Then as Hank goes through security, the camera dwells a little on Hank and cuts once or twice to Jesse just watching him and so I watched him and I got this wave of complete empathy with him as a father. Most movies, I think, put the viewer in the role of the child, seeing the father’s emotion but reacting as the child (“Aw, bye Dad”) while in that scene I thought “Jesus, that’s my kid. Where the hell did he come from?”
I mentioned projection earlier and I’m curious if this is another instance of it. This trilogy bears some resemblance to the film Blue Valentine (2010) (review) especially with respect to the characters I find the most sympathetic, which are the male leads. In both, there’s this sense that the men have problems and are not wholly in the right, but if they are ever in the wrong, I don’t see it. In Blue Valentine, for example, Ryan Gosling’s character’s only flaw is that he’s got his priorities absolutely correct. He’s living his life for the love of his family and everything else is just a means to enable that life while Michelle Williams’s problem is that she’s fallen out of love with him for no good reason. It’s either he’s lost ambition, his thinning hair, lack of status, just a whim, it’s unclear. In Before Midnight, Celine is truly “the mayor of Crazy Town.” She started down this crazy track in Before Sunset, but has gone full-on schizophrenic in Before Midnight. What is most interesting, from my perspective, is that Before Sunset and Before Midnight add Hawke and Delpy as co-writers.
So, one assumes that the crazy has been brought in by Delpy herself (something confirmed by her own projects 2 Days in Paris (2007) and 2 Days in New York (2012) (review)). Celine isn’t always wrong in the arguments, which is where the crazy comes out, but she certainly thinks that everyone else is (though she would deny this in the strongest terms, thus proving my point). She baldly puts all of her life complaints on Jesse or the girls while condemning Jesse for blaming her for all of his. Her complaints are very common ones about being taken for granted as the actor of the many stereotypical motherly roles and Jesse accepts her complaints as sound but partially self-inflicted. Jesse’s complaint about being unable to be present for large portions of his son’s formative years is treated similarly by Celine. The difference is the response to the feedback. Jesse takes it in and accepts her perspective and says that he’s basically just lamenting the situation. Celine takes it as the continuation of misogyny and Jesse’s lament as code for a conflict over status in their relationship or a way to cause a break-up or any other possible thing she can think of as an external force against her and woman-kind. And then she’s cruel. Both Celine and Williams’s character in Blue Valentine are bitterly cruel to their other half.
What I want to know is what this means. Is this irrationality and cruelty something taken as unchangeable or positive or is it a leap of honesty that Delpy is willing to take that the male writers are not in expressing their flaws? The “irrational” tag is one that usually hits a very raw nerve in inter-gender conversations, but for women watching Before Midnight, I’d be curious to know whether they see Celine’s jumping from reason to reason as a flaw. It is irrational because there is no way to sift the truly felt from the rationalization so that lasting accommodation can be made. And both Celine and Williams’s character avoid this accommodation and reach for some vague next step that their male counterparts look at with confusion. What more is there to want? Career plays a part and for Celine this is tied up in feminism. I’m reminded of a joke about gay marriage. “Yeah, gay marriage, why not? I mean, everyone should have the right to be as miserable as the rest of us.”
Anyway, I can’t wait for this trilogy to come out in a neatly packaged Criterion Collection Blu-Ray set.