Over the past few days I’ve enjoyed the immense pleasure of finally experiencing Richard Linklater’s acclaimed Before trilogy, which have long been a collection of films I’ve been eager to see for some time. I’ve considered Linklater to be one of my favourite directors for a while now, with School of Rock a childhood delight of mine and Dazed & Confused a film that resonated deeply with me during my teenage years, and as an individual partial to an engaging romantic drama, I’d long suspected that the Before movies would be right up my alley. I finally got stuck into them three days ago and was instantly hooked with the enchanting delight that is Before Sunrise, with it appealing greatly to the hopeless romantic in me that I didn’t even realise was there. It also served as a clear reminder as to what lengths can be achieved in cinema when the fundamental basics are done right.
Having then assumed that the second instalment would represent at least a slight drop in quality as so many sequels tend to do, I was taken aback by how brilliant Before Sunset was, with the nine years that had passed since the original allowing for Linklater and co-stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to craft an even more focused story boasting greater guile and complexity. The way in which both films felt distinctly different through their varied approaches to mood, tone and theme, whilst also complimenting each other beautifully as back-to-back features, was truly astonishing. If Sunrise was the bold demonstration of the how instant attraction between two people can form the basis of a love story ripped right out of a story-book, Sunset was the bitter and stark reminder that the obstacles that emerge in life can put paid to that visceral and heart-fluttering passion. The quandary of choosing between one’s head and one’s heart can make for some seriously compelling cinema and that question was how Before Sunset ended, with the future of Jesse and Celine very much up in the air as the 2004 sequel drew to a close.
Despite the second instalment of the trilogy managing to build upon and better the original, I still approached this third and final edition with a degree of trepidation, assuming somewhat that the film would at least manage to wrap up the story nicely without quite reaching the levels of those that had come before it. In the end, I was proved to be emphatically wrong – Before Midnight somehow found room to raise the bar even higher, and in doing so confirmed to me that these three films are about as perfect a trio as you could ever wish to enjoy. Building on the platform laid beneath it by Sunrise and Sunset, Midnight manages to recapture everything that made the first two films so special whilst also expanding its horizons and ambitions significantly. It confidently proved to be the send-off Jesse and Celine’s story deserved, even though I was unsure that they were going to get it, and by the time the curtain was drawn and the credits began to roll I felt like I had seen one of the most grounded, affecting and poignant examinations of love that I’m ever likely to see on the big screen.
After the “will they, won’t they?” ending of Before Sunset, Before Midnight opens with the reveal that, despite the obstacles in their way, Jesse and Celine followed their hearts and committed themselves to one another. Nine years after their reunion in Paris, and eighteen after they met on a train pulling in to Vienna, they have now been in a relationship for some years and have two young twin girls in tow. On the face of it, the fairytale ending that both would have fantasised about since their first night together has come true, but just as was the case in Sunset, life doesn’t always work out the way you might have imagined. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the duo are carrying a great deal of baggage that they have accumulated over the span of their relationship – Jesse’s divorce from his wife was a messy process, and as a result he doesn’t see his son as much as he would like to, whilst the sacrifices Celine has made with regards to her career after birthing their twins has left her dissatisfied and at odds at what to do. As poetically romantic as their burgeoning love once was, the trials and tribulations that arise between long-term couples in their middle age are not immune from their relationship and it’s clear that there is doubt with regards to their future together.
What is immediately striking about Before Midnight is how much wider its scope with, with the singular focus on Jesse and Celine that was particular apparent in Sunset making way for a much broader examination of how their relationship works in the context of their lives, from their children to their friends. Set during a summer-long vacation in Greece, the film’s opening act sees for the first time in the series the pair interact with other people around them as individuals, signalling the fact that despite their love for one another, these remain two different people with different personalities and desires. This decision allows for greater exploration as to who Jesse and Celine are as individuals, and as such the dynamics of their partnership feels far more fleshed out and appreciated that it has done before. It serves as an early indication that whilst their compatibility as a couple undoubtedly remains, they still hold hopes and desires that are theirs and theirs alone.
Midnight does, however, treat the viewer to a number of long takes of the pair conversing that made the first two films so wonderful, and whilst they’re a decade older and the nature of their relationship is very different, it takes no time at all to realise that these are the same two people that fell first fell in love during that starry night in Vienna in 1994. No appreciation for Hawke and Delpy’s performances should be forgone here, and the chemistry that first sparked some twenty years ago – both in the film’s timeframe and in reality – is hugely down to the manner in which they interact. It’s genuinely the most convincing and authentic relationship between two people I’ve ever seen put to screen, and seeing these two actors perform so brilliantly alongside each other over three dispersed points in time proves to be a hugely rewarding experience. As great as the screenplays for all three Before movies are, were it not for the two superb portrayals of both of their characters, the films would not have been the immense successes that they have gone on to be.
This third instalment is also noticeable for how much funnier it is than its two predecessors, with both characters’ dark sense of humour providing a number of memorable quips whilst also adding another dimension to their long-lasting partnership. At no point during Midnight does it ever feel like the two strangers who fell in love in the summer of 1994 have departed, although the events of the past 18 years have clearly changed them both as people and the years that they have spent together has pushed their relationship to what seems like a breaking point. The film’s final act sees Jesse and Celine engage in what is potentially the most authentic and believable argument between a couple at a crossroads ever seen in cinema, with Linklater, Hawke and Delpy taking advantage of the fact that these are two characters who the audience have been invested in for the best part of two decades and making it count with a long interaction that is simultaneously funny, enthralling, heartbreaking and, ultimately, immensely touching. Without wanting to spoil the finale, Midnight ends on the most perfect note – not conclusive enough to delight or dismay, but there is enough there to emanate a great feeling of hope for these two wonderfully realised characters.
In my mind, Before Midnight is the greatest film of the trilogy because just as Before Sunset did with regards to Before Sunrise, it builds on the events of the prior film(s) and adds more depth and scope to the narrative. It captures the essence of what made the first two films so beloved and uses that as a foundation to add more layers to the story of Jesse and Celine that makes you fall in love with them all over again. Over the course of the three films, Linklater and his stars have offered to their audience a love story that has simultaneously rejoiced in the power of love without ever losing its footing in reality, and Before Midnight is of all three the most perfect demonstration of this finely-struck balance. As far as I’m concerned, this is the gold standard for which all other romantic films must seek to emulate, and I’ve no doubt that this is a collection of films that will enchant and delight me for decades to come. This is what cinema is all about.