Directed by: Richard Linklater
What Works: Released in 1995, Before Sunrise told the story of Jesse and Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, an American man and a French woman riding a train through Europe and who spend an evening wandering through the streets of Vienna. The movie was a mix of classic romances like It Happened One Night and contemporary independent fare like Blue Valentine. Virtually the entire film consists of the couple walking-and-talking and on the surface it does not appear to have a formal dramatic structure. Before Sunrise is very whimsical, with the couple’s discussions wandering in the way that daily conversions tend to do, and Hawke and Delpy’s performances are very naturalistic. The 1995 picture concluded with Celine and Jesse promising to reunite on a future date. The story of these two picked up in 2004 with Before Sunset in which Celine and Jesse reunite for a day in France. This movie features the same format as its predecessor, although it is accomplished in a brisk 80 minutes, and concludes with Celine and Jesse committing to a relationship. Director Richard Linklater and stars Hawke and Delpy reteamed in 2013 to cap the trilogy with Before Midnight. This installment picks up in Greece nearly a decade after the previous film and finds Jesse and Celine have married and now have a brood of kids. Before Midnight continues most of the qualities that were appealing about the previous movies, starting with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. One of the unique aspects of the relationship between their characters has been the level of reality between them. As Jesse and Celine, these actors are a likable couple and the viewer will want to see them together. However, they’ve also maintained a grit and uncertainty and even a certain level of distrust that gives the on-screen relationship an edge that differentiates it from other movie romances. Although Before Midnight continues the style and appeal of the series, it is different in one key respect. In this film Jesse and Celine have grown weary of each other in the way couples inevitably do and where the earlier films were about the dream of what could be, Before Midnight is about the reality of what is. That reality isn’t always pleasant and the willingness of the filmmakers to despoil the fantasy of the first two films differentiates this installment of the trilogy and elevates the series.
What Doesn’t: Some viewers may find Before Midnight, as well as the rest of this trilogy, inherently off putting. The movie does not present its story in the way that audiences are accustomed to experiencing narrative in cinema. Before Midnight does have a story and it’s less whimsical than the first two installments, but the narrative is in the background and the central conflict only comes to the foreground in the ending as Jesse and Celine quarrel. The irony of Before Midnight is that while it may be impenetrable to uninitiated audiences who won’t accept its filmmaking style, the movie may also alienate fans of the first two entries in this series. The main appeal of Before Sunrise and Sunset was the romantic and even fantastic qualities of the premise. The earlier films’ freeform style disguised the fact that these movies were at heart built on a conventional romantic conceit in which two strangers in an exotic location are flung into a whirlwind romance. There is a classic romanticism about the first two films that does not exist in Before Midnight. In this movie the honeymoon is over and Jesse and Celine push their relationship to the breaking point. This departure from the idealism of the earlier films is exactly what makes the third installment so special but it may upset fans of the series.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, interviews, and trailers.
Bottom Line: In its own way, Before Midnight is a daring finale to a well-loved series. The filmmakers challenge the audience by defying the central appeal of the previous movies and providing a sophisticated take on love and relationships. Taken as a whole, the Before trilogy is one of the most impressive and consistent film series ever made.
Episode: #500 (July 20, 2014)