Have you ever heard that as couples get older they lost the ability to hear each other? I have, and I know exactly where: it’s part of the opening lines of Before Sunrise, the film that kicked off Richard Linklater’s Up-series of Generation X romances that continues now, rich and strong as ever, in Before Midnight.
That was in the summer of 1994; Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) were 23 when they met each other on a Eurail train as it entered Vienna. They got off and wandered around the city all night, talking the whole way, before Jesse had to catch his plane back home to the states, but in the meantime they fell in love and the rest is history.
Or at least the material for the book Jesse was promoting around Europe nine years later in 2003 when Celine found him in Before Sunset. They spent all afternoon this time, wandering Paris and talking again about their lives and how that night in Vienna had affected them. Despite having a wife and a son back in New York, Jesse did not make his flight that evening.
And so we come, nine years later, to the summer of 2012. Jesse is divorced and living with Celine in Paris; they have twin girls about seven or eight years old. His literary career continues, and a famous British author has let Jesse, Celine, their daughters, and Jesse’s son Hank stay in his guest house in the Southern Peloponnese for the past six weeks. It’s the last day of the trip; they leave Hank off at the airport and drive back to the house. After an early dinner their friends offer to take care of the girls for the night, along with the use of a hotel room. And this gives Jesse and Celine a chance to, naturally, wander through the streets of the little Greek town, talking about themselves and their relationship.
After managing to present two meeting-up stories, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke give us their take on love over the long haul, and how it comes into conflict with all of life’s other concerns. Jesse feels conflicted about his absence from Hank’s life, but custody is not really an option without moving to Chicago, which runs directly up against Celine’s recent career opportunities. Celine and Jesse may each have had their indiscretions. Both of them are getting older, and while they both still look great they don’t look as great as they did eighteen years ago on that train in Vienna.
Even in 1994, Delpy and Hawke had an amazing chemistry, and coming back to these characters and each other again and again has only strengthened their performances. The film is scripted, but it feels utterly natural; an early conversation seems to go on forever, and I don’t recall a single cut in it, which may say as much about their relationship with Linklater as a director and as a co-writer.
Working together, these three filmmakers have managed to tap into something deeply true and honest in a way that may not have been apparent eighteen, or maybe even nine years ago. Before Midnight easily outstrips all other films about long-term commitment, if only because they provide the space for things to go in any direction. There are scenes of great joy and mirth as well as moments of real anger, bitterness, and pain. By now it’s a disturbing prospect that these two might not make it work after all; even more so because it becomes all too real a possibility, in a way most romances wouldn’t dare.
And yet whichever way it goes from here, it’s not out of the question that we might catch these two again in nine years, now fifty years old, wandering some other European streets, talking about how their lives have gone, and how their relationship has recovered from the strains unearthed tonight, or how it didn’t. Maybe they’ve lost the ability to hear each other; maybe they’ll recover it. Yet again, only time will tell.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.