Bittersweet nostalgia Before Midnight

With Richard Linklater’s latest Before Midnight, we get to revisit Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) for the third installment of this film project.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

Watching Before Midnight, director Richard Linklater and his stars/co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s revisiting of their 18-year, three-movie project, is bittersweetly nostalgic in more ways than one.

Delpy and Hawke reprise their roles as the French, free-spirited Céline and the cocky American Jesse, respectively. Only now, instead of star-crossed young lovers, they’re parents of young twin daughters, on vacation in Greece but preoccupied with jobs, money and general mid-life malaise.

The film begins with Jesse dropping off his son at the airport — that son being from the previous marriage that was kiboshed when he reignited his relationship with Céline, as we all suspected, immediately after the end of Before Sunset. On their way back to their Greek retreat, Céline and Jesse banter and bicker in the car while their daughters sleep.

In the next section, they hang out with their hosts at the retreat, an international and intergenerational group that briefly takes us out of the series’ two-person focus and reflects on the vagaries of love and relationships at different stages of life. Afterwards, Jesse and Céline go on a leisurely walk and talk, recalling the charming rambles of the first two films.

Finally, the couple go to a hotel for the last night of their vacation, which swiftly devolves into an epic fight. Anyone with experience in a long-term relationship will feel this scene with a painful sense of familiarity. The film is like a visit with old, close friends; you’re both happy to see them and quickly reminded of their inescapable flaws — and above all you recognize in them, and yourself, the inevitable passing of time.

Although Hawke has always been the weak link of the series for me (and he’s still rocking that goatee? Really?), he has his charming moments. Delpy, as demonstrated in her own directorial efforts 2 Days in New York and 2 Days in Paris, has a comedian’s willingness to make herself look ridiculous but can turn intensely dramatic on a dime. Even more so than in the previous two films, she owns the screen.

Although my peers in the critical elite have been kind to the film (rated at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes last I checked), the street-level word of mouth has been mixed. I couldn’t help but wonder if people have lost the fortitude for this kind of slow-paced, dialogue-heavy and plot-light story in the ADD era. And that’s the other part that filled me with a bittersweet longing. It feels like the echo of a cinematic era that’s fading away.

The pace of the film is a little odd — but Linklater is an experimental filmmaker at heart, and I felt that maybe he was reflecting how life in middle age just flows less smoothly than in your twenties. At any rate, when the screen faded to black, I found myself thinking “Oh, I hope it doesn’t end here — it should go on a little longer.” Considering that many films create the exact opposite feeling, that has to be a good sign. ■

Before Midnight starts Friday June 21

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