Falling in love is a unique and beautiful experience. Falling out of love is complicated and painful and messy, and no one likes to talk about it much in the movies; it’s far easier to examine the wreckage than to try and prevent it.
Eighteen years after Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) first met — see 1995’s Before Sunrise — and nine years after they met again — see 2004’s Before Sunset — the new film Before Midnight finds the couple at another crossroads in their relationship. They have been together for nearly nine years; Jesse broke free from an unhappy marriage and moved from Chicago to join Celine in Paris, but visiting with his son in Greece for the summer has made Jesse wish he could be a closer, more constant presence in the young teenage boy’s life.
The crisis erupts as the couple quietly converses on a drive back from a local airport to their vacation accommodations, their twin daughters asleep in the back seat. It’s a bravura sequence, an unbroken shot nearly 15 minutes in length, that tracks the conversational twists and turns leading inexplicably yet almost inevitably from convivial generalities to bitter recriminations, the kind of conversation that begins with ‘hello there, lover’ and somehow ends with ‘goodbye forever!’
Despite their obvious love and affection for one another, Jesse and Celine are also harboring deep-seated resentments; unresolved conflicts have festered and chipped away at the foundation of their relationship. Rather than completing each other’s sentences in a loving manner, they quickly jump to conclusions, full-blown, worst-case scenarios that surely have a basis in past disagreements. It’s like a small crack in a big window that slowly, slowly grows; unless they can resolve the root issues, their relationship is doomed to failure.
Once again, director Richard Linklater collaborated with Hawke and Delpy on the intricately-constructed screenplay, which is filled with rich language and thick currents of discursive group discussions and the aforementioned intimate conversations. Often, the talk dips into a vat of simmering relationship waters; stay too long, and severe burns and disfigurement threaten.
The tension that results is more stomach-churning than any summer blockbuster, mainly because it feels so familiar to anyone who has been in a relationship for any length of time. Love is tenuous in the best of times, and in the worst of times it can mean salvation — or damnation if it rips apart. All we can do is try and keep it going.
Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy understand that. Before Midnight may not be the easiest movie to watch, especially if it strikes too close to home, but it’s one of the best of the year. Wrestling with love has never seemed so essential.
Before Midnight opens on Friday, June 7, at the Landmark Magnolia, AMC NorthPark, and Angelika Plano.