One of the most satisfying feelings offered by cinema is the rare sense that the characters we have watched on screen have gone on living their lives beyond the confines of the story, and that we are merely dropping in to experience a fraction on it. Before Midnight is a film that delivers that feeling, as it answers the question left dangling at the end of Before Sunset and tells us that Jesse and Celine haven't left each other's side since that film's agonisingly ambiguous climactic fade-out. In fact, they are now the parents of two little girls, while Jesse's son remains America with his estranged wife. They are eighteen years older and carrying a lot more baggage than they were when we first met them in Before Sunrise, but they are recognisably the same people that they were on that romantic night in Austria.
In a similar fashion, Before Midnight sticks rigidly to the dynamic established in its predecessors while being subtly different enough to distinguish itself from them. In each film, Richard Linklater follows Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as they stroll around a European city at a leisurely pace, talking about themselves, each other, their lives, loves and philosophies. If Before Sunset was buoyed by the optimistic spirit of first love, and Before Sunset was a more rueful film about missed connections and second chances, then Before Midnight is about what happens after that first flush of romance has faded. It's a more contentious, troubling and antagonistic film – as Jesse says to Celine of their relationship, "It's not perfect, but it's real."
This film finds Jesse and Celine in Greece, where they are spending the summer at the home of a celebrated writer who admires Jesse's novels (which, of course, are heavily drawn from his own past experiences). The Peloponnese peninsula is an idyllic setting, but there are storm clouds on the horizon. Jesse's melancholy mood after sending his son back to his ex-wife leads him to raise the possibility of moving to America so they can be closer to the boy, a possibility that Celine immediately shoots down. This first confrontation takes place in the car ride back from the airport, a conversation that largely unfolds in a single take and displays the ease with which Hawke and Delpy slip into these characters. Before Midnight is all talk, but it feels so effortless and absorbing because the way these characters talk to each other rings so true, and is so unselfconscious. They are in their own world, totally focused on each other, and that allows us to feel like voyeurs snooping in on a real relationship.
Of course, we must applaud Richard Linklater for that. In the Before films he has perfected a fluid and subtle way of guiding the characters through these long walks and talks, and of managing the imperceptible but sometimes seismic tonal shifts with an uncanny gracefulness. He knows just when to move things forward and when to cut – these films are full of unusually long scenes, but the films themselves never feel too long – and he obviously creates an environment that allows all of his actors to contribute their best work. Linklater references Rossellini and Rohmer during the course of Before Midnight, but in making this series he has crafted a singular style that deserves to be considered alongside both of those filmmakers.
The comparison with Rossellini is particularly apt, as Before Midnight bears more than a passing relationship with his great marital crisis movie Journey to Italy. Jesse and Celine might not be married, but the bonds between them are so deep – and our own connection with them is so strong – it's hard not to flinch when they begin attacking each other in the film's second half. There are rumblings of discord throughout the film, but it's still shocking to see these two lovers unleashing the resentments and frustrations that are borne from a nine-year relationship. Like the first two films, Before Midnight was co-written by Linklater and the two stars, and their equal input into the screenplay must account for the balanced arguments and multi-faceted characterisations that give this bickering such an impact. The extraordinarily well handled argument scene reminded me of nothing less than Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, as both parties cede ground and then gain the upper hand in their argument, and we can see the virtues and the flaws in both characters. We might suspect that this is not the first time they have had such a row – Celine tells Jesse that he is always like this after sending his son back to the US – but it is delivered with a force that makes us wonder if we might actually be watching the end of this great love story.