dir. Richard Linklater, 2013, USA/Greece
The bottom line: a love story for the ages.
Now playing in limited release is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third and presumably final chapter in the director’s much beloved “Before” series, following 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset. It is, against all odds (especially considering the sublime note on which the second one ended), the best of the three, which means it’s also one of the very best American films made by anyone in recent decades. When I first wrote a capsule review of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy in 2010, I posited that it may have been influenced by Before Sunset. However unlikely that seemed at the time, Before Midnight explicitly repays the compliment and arguably out-Kiarostamis Kiarostami by kicking off with a couple of long-take traveling shots through a car windshield that re-introduce viewers to Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine (both now an impossibly old 41-years-young and in a long-term relationship) as they drive and casually chat in Linklater’s trademark witty-naturalistic-philosophical-conversational style and, more importantly, end the film by engaging in a role-play scenario that daringly inverts the strangers-pretending-to-be-a-married-couple premise of Certified Copy.
In between these indelible scenes, we also have nods to Eric Rohmer and Roberto Rossellini (whose Journey to Italy, the ultimate film about marriage, played the Gene Siskel Film Center in a neat coincidence last week). But Linklater’s mise-en-scene, which captures gorgeous Peloponnesian landscapes and ancient Greek architecture in fluid tracking shots and epic long takes, is always gratifyingly subservient to the emotional fireworks between the couple occupying the center of the frame, and is also entirely his own; this rigorous sense of style (which the director smartly explicated — by way of Caveh Zahedi and Andre Bazin — way back in his 2003 feature Waking Life but has apparently only recently come to fully realize) contributes to a heightened sense of realism by allowing us to feel that these characters are inhabiting a real space in real time. It is a perfect marriage of form and content that allows the film to go places emotionally that most other directors can only dream of taking their viewers: Jesse may still be the pretentious-but-charming writer and Celine may still be the romantic-but-neurotic feminist, but Linklater’s camera observes, wisely and without judgement, how the necessary work that must go into any successful long-term monogamous relationship has shifted the dynamic between them in the nine years since Before Sunset. Also new is how an awareness of encroaching mortality has crept into their dialogue. I especially love the way the characters continually stop in mid-conversation to point out aspects of transient nature in their immediate environment (ripe tomatoes hanging on the vine, wandering goats, a barking dog, a sinking sunset), each marked by insert shots that break up the long takes and highlight Linklater’s uncanny feel for the ephemeral.
Credit, of course, also belongs to Hawke and Delpy for co-authoring the screenplay as well as poignantly imbuing Jesse and Celine with such deeply felt life experience. Thanks to the actors’ easy chemistry, it has never been easier to believe that the characters in a sequel (much less a sequel to a sequel) are those same damn people who we’ve met and cared about before (give or take nine or eighteen years). To see this film is to feel that one is hanging out with old, dear friends. Or at least that’s the way it feels for most of Before Midnight‘s charming first two-thirds, which establish it as a worthy companion piece to its excellent predecessors — in particular during a villa-luncheon scene involving characters who are clearly meant to represent younger and older doppelgangers of the romantic leads. But it’s the shocking verisimilitude of the final third, a hotel room argument that is as painful in the rawness of its emotions as it is psychologically acute (my wife and I marveled afterwards at how many of its sentiments we had ourselves expressed verbatim in conversation), that lifts this movie into the realm of the transcendental. Which I suppose is a fancy way for me to say that Before Midnight really touched my heart and that it made me cry more than any official “comedy” I have ever seen. If you care about cinema, you need to see this masterpiece on the big screen. If you don’t live in a town where it’s playing, I’d suggest driving to one where it is.
You can check out the trailer for Before Midnight via YouTube below: