In the closing scene of “Before Midnight,” Jesse (Ethan Hawke) makes a desperate ploy to salvage his relationship with Céline (Julie Delpy). Their evening has been horrendous—filled with arguments that are clearly bitter rehashes. Céline has announced that she doesn’t love Jesse anymore.
Undeterred, Jesse performs his romantic gesture. Then Céline rejects him. She’s had it up to here. Things look grim for our fateful couple.
It might be weird to admit this, but I’ve grown up with the characters of the Before Franchise—“Before Sunrise” in 1995, “Before Sunset” in 2004, and now the current installment. I say “grown up with,” but really, Jesse and Céline precede me. They’ve always been five or six years older than I am at the time of each film’s release, so watching them over the last 20 years has been like watching an older sibling battle (and now fail) with life’s forthcoming travails.
“Before Midnight” is devastating. Céline and Jesse’s conflict feels painfully real. We’d hoped for better for this young couple, who were ripped apart by Fate in “Before Sunrise,” then reunited in “Before Sunset.” But things have not turned out well.
The main shortcoming of the Before Franchise’s previous installments recurs here: the forcing of too many words and ideas into the actors’ mouths, like Dawson’s Creek for pretentious adults. And I am annoyed by the film’s title. Why “Before Midnight”? My only conclusion (besides the obvious, to maintain the franchise’s naming scheme) is that Céline and Jesse are older now, and midnight is way past their bedtime.
But this is all forgivable, of course, because everything else works. Filled with intelligence and nuance, the anti-romantic “Before Midnight” is an unqualified success of the I-left-the-theater-feeling-sick-and-that-felt-good genre.
Jesse is as boyish and pretentious as ever—he makes inappropriate jokes in all three films, but now he suffers the adult consequences of that immaturity. And while Céline’s passion and anger were neatly obscured by the romantic circumstances of the earlier installments, here they are on full display.
But interestingly, “Before Midnight” doesn’t play the sympathy game. In the war of which character the audience should like more, Céline clearly loses. She is disrespectful beyond belief, and her anger is the flaming center of the film. Though Jesse is at times cocky and immature, in the end his greatest sin seems to be grasping at a doomed relationship.
I watched “Before Midnight” with several friends who argued that the director (Richard Linklater) clearly crammed in too much awfulness. They thought the couple’s extended argument didn’t ring true.
Obviously my friends have never enjoyed a quarrelsome relationship (like me). Nor are they angry people themselves (also like me, I’m afraid). Unfortunately, I saw a lot of myself in Céline: the holding of grievances; the overreacting and mindreading; the backed-into-a-corner relentlessness; and the attendant dissatisfaction and depression that come with being an angry person. For me, someone who has struggled with anger, Delpy’s Céline rings painfully true.
“Before Midnight” hints at an explanation for all this, that humans are naturally dissatisfied animals living in an even more dissatisfying age. There is also a more practical theme here, one that I hope will be explored in future installments of the Before Franchise: Any healthy relationship requires a minimum of two healthy people to succeed.
In the final moments of the movie, Céline caves to Jesse’s romantic ploy. But it is a hollow victory. She’s simply exhausted, tired of fighting. And even while playing along with the moment’s “romance,” Céline wordlessly tells Jesse (in some wonderful acting by Delpy)–You just don’t get it, but I’ll relent, if only for tonight, you sad little man. Jesse doesn’t hear her. Nothing is resolved. It is a heartbreaking moment made even more heartbreaking by its obvious jab at Hollywoodishness. “Here’s your happy ending,” the movie says. “Sucks, doesn’t it.”