7 July 2013
London

In Before Midnight, Richard Linklater brings his trilogy about the travails of globetrotting lovers Jesse and Céline to a conclusion (maybe) – and creates one of the finest portraits of a modern relationship put on screen.

Every generation has its great cinematic love story. The 1930s had Gone With the Wind. The 1940s had Casablanca. In the 1970s, Love Story caught the counter-cultural spirit of the age. While the 1980s was mostly in love with money and big shoulderpads, it still found time for Working Girl, Pretty Woman and Dirty Dancing. For the Gen-Xers like me who came of age in the 1990s, our defining romantic epic might just be Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater’s gorgeous little near-two-hander starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as students meeting by chance on a train, disembarking in Vienna and falling in love with each other over the course of one talk-filled night.

At the time, Before Sunrise seemed to herald a radical break with the conventions of glossy Hollywood romance. There were no big stars or breathlessly sweaty sex scenes, the narrative meandered and seemed formless, it was crammed with naturalistic dialogue that approximated the start-again, stop-again patterns of actual speech rather than movie dialogue, and it had an open-ended finale that was neither happy nor tragic – making the film feel closer in style and sensibility to the French New Wave or the then burgeoning American independent film movement than anything coming out of Hollywood. For those of us who were roughly the same age as Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy), it felt like a movie by and for our generation – the children of baby-boomers and the inheritors of late 20th century consumerist slackerism, talking and talking and talking their way out of the void and (hopefully) into something approximating authentic adult experience, and fumbling around awkwardly trying to take their place in the world. Jesse and Céline demonstrated a real and recognisable sense of the age, hovering somewhere between being fashionably sensitive and too cool to care, using words to impress each other, protect themselves, signal their attraction and delay the inevitable farewell. When I saw the film as a university student in 1995, I felt like our generation had finally “arrived” – saved from the glut of endless slacker grunge narratives or bubblegum frathouse comedies, and finding relevance without sacrificing intelligence, perception or charm.

Before Sunrise became a cult hit, introduced Delpy to an American audience (she’s gone on since to write and direct two similarly themed cross-cultural relationship comedies), and became a point of reference for smart, engaging love stories with a vaguely European arthouse twist. It also, I suspect, sent thousands of teenage fans to Vienna (as it did me, eventually), who are no doubt still roaming around its pristine streets, looking for their goateed Ethan-lookalikes to fall in love with and shag in a cemetery.

Viewed now, what’s striking about Before Sunrise is the narrative conventionality hiding behind those cool indie film touches – once the sun rises and falls a few times, it’s clear that at heart, it’s just another boy-meets-girl story. What’s even more alarming, especially to someone of my generation, is how quickly the film has dated, now standing as an amusing time capsule of life just before the internet and cellphone age. The grand narrative tension that propelled and sustained Before Sunrise‘s story – will Jesse and Céline meet again or will they lose touch? – wouldn’t play if set now, as they’d have simply swapped cellphone numbers or Skyped once they went their separate ways. To that extent, the story becomes as sweetly antiquated as the messenger arriving too late in Romeo & Juliet, leaving Jesse and Céline fixed in time, like insects preserved in amber.

Though I’m seldom a fan of sequels, Linklater and his actors spawned a near-perfect one, Before Sunset, which picks up Jesse and Céline’s story nine years on. Now in his early 30s, Jesse has become a successful writer, publishing a novel based on his night in Vienna with Céline, and runs into her at a book reading in Paris, where she lives and works for a global aid organisation. They awkwardly, enthusiastically reconnect, and spend an hour or so strolling around a rapturously lit summer afternoon in Paris, during which we discover, in leaps and starts, the messy details of their lives. Each is partnered, but unsatisfactorily – Jesse is unhappily married and has a young son, and Céline has an ambivalent commitment to a war-photographer boyfriend who’s seldom around. The characters, like the audience, subtlely search for clues in each other as to whether the spark from that night in Vienna is still alive. It transpires that their “chance meeting” wasn’t quite so unrehearsed – Jesse admits that he wrote his novel partially in the hope that it would lead him to Céline again, and Céline acknowledges that, true to his hopes, she read the book and went in search of him when he came to Paris. But, as with the first film, they are facing down a ticking clock – Jesse is due to catch a plane back to America later that afternoon.

As we watch the couple wandering through cafes and gardens, along the banks of the Seine, on and off a bateaux-mouche and eventually into a car back to Céline’s apartment, we’re reminded that time, like the film itself, rolls only forward, and that life is short. What seemed like langorous and pleasant, consequence-free flirting in Before Sunrise becomes a tension-laded pas-de-deux, fraught with regret about missed opportunities and ever-present awareness about the fleetingness of the moment. Less optimistic and more battle-scarred than their teenaged selves, Jesse and Céline are now warier of life’s disappointments and both eager to maximise their opportunity at a second chance. Linklater took the smart move of having Delpy and Hawke collaborate on the script for Before Sunset, creating a satisfying sense of kinship between the actors and their characters, and adding an intriguing intertextual layering to the story. Like their characters (and their audience), Delpy and Hawke have aged in parallel to their characters, and we see autobiographical echoes in Jesse and Céline’s stories throughout the film. Like Céline, Delpy lived and worked in America for many years before relocating back to Paris, and Hawke’s failed marriage to Uma Thurman bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Jesse’s unhappy situation.

The chief delight of watching Before Sunset is to watch how adeptly the performers use their easy chemistry and their two-steps-forward-three-steps-back conversation to progress and forestall the hook-up that each of them clearly wants. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Céline’s conversation was partially about the thrill of trying out their versions of themselves on each other. In Before Sunset, their chatter becomes a series of serves, volleys, defences, dodges, statements of intention, hurried cover-ups, concessions to the other side and veiled declarations of intent. As they ascend the winding stairs to Céline’s flat (where, they’ve agreed, Céline will simply play Jesse a song on her guitar before he goes to catch his flight), the tension rachets up as expertly as a Hitchcock thriller. The film ends, deliciously, just on the brink of the relationship’s re-consummation, and we’re borne frustratingly but elatedly out on a stream of the Nina Simone song playing in Céline’s apartment. The “will-they-won’t-they” question has been answered – kinda – but we’re still left wanting more.

I’d have been happy enough for Linklater & Co to have left it there, but secretly pleased that they decided to repeat the experiment again – possibly for the final time – in Before Midnight, which I saw last night. Even if it isn’t the conclusion, it feels like a satisfying development to the narrative, and the ease and sheer pleasure of the moviemaking speaks to the advantages of a long-term, slow-burn creative partnership between a director and his actors. Jumping another nine years ahead, Jesse is now separated from his wife and living in Paris with Céline and their young twin daughters. The film picks up with the family holidaying in Greece where Jesse has been invited to a writers’ retreat. Though there are clearly some complications: Jesse misses his teenaged son who lives in the States, who we see saying goodbye to Jesse at an airport at the film’s start, and Céline seems frustrated about her job and mildly scratchy and tired in the way that most hip-working-40something-eco-moms of her generation tend to be. Mostly, though, their relationship seems relaxed, easy and comfortable, and their family holiday, filled with el fresco dinners with friends, long walks through gorgeous Greek countryside and endless conversations about life, art, love, relationships and the nature of being, feels like the stuff of fairytales. Finally, after two films’ worth of torment, we’re allowed to indulge in the fantasy craved for by all lovers of romantic movies – two people who seemed meant for each other finally being able to live and enjoy their lives together.

Or so we think. If Before Sunrise was about the thrill of discovery and first love, and Before Sunset a hymn to the importance of second chances, Before Midnight addresses the thornier area of what happens when you make it past happily ever after, whether true love will ever match your expectations, and whether cross-cultural relationships are glorious expressions of our common humanity or just timebombs waiting to go off. As it plays out, Before Midnight manages to sustain the gossamer-lightness of the first two films, while taking a deeper darker turn into heavier dramatic country: think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in rubber-soled Converse sneakers and strappy sundresses, set amid the sun-burnished landscapes of rural Greece.

Over the course of one night, Jesse and Céline have a leisurely, philosophically-laden dinner conversation with friends, and then walk to a luxury hotel where they’re meant to be spending a romantic night alone. What starts as relief about having time alone away from the demands of raising twins becomes a sweet if slightly over-familiar lovemaking scene (Céline comments, wistfully rather than unkindly, that Jesse’s sex moves are predictable) and then takes a turn into something darker. Jesse feels depressed about being separated from his son, and Céline, who senses abandonment before it’s even happened, draws out of him that he’s interested in the possibility of their returning to Chicago, sending her into near-nuclear meltdown. What seemed like harmless differences of opinion descends into a raging, and often very ugly argument. We quickly see that the idyllic week appears to have been far from ideal for Céline, whose vague sense of post-feminist tristesse evident from the beginning has been waiting to boil over into accusatory rage at Jesse, who she blames for trying to forestall her career and prevent her from being creative while he swans around playing at being the Great Writer. Jesse mostly tries to be reasonable and supportive, but gives as good as he gets, and doesn’t let Céline off the hook, pointing out that he’s at home with the children more than she is, as well as being the one who’s transplanted his life and left behind his elder son to live with her in Paris.

It’s a remarkable scene, sustained over long, uninterrupted takes which allow the characters room and space to breathe. Hawke and Delpy inhabit their roles and their increasingly defensive debating positions so thoroughly that the scene took on the uncomfortable intimacy of watching family or friends fight. The characters’ familiarity with each other – and our familiarity, born via two films over eighteen years – gives it the rich, lived-in feel of arguments you know have been simmering for years and that probably won’t get resolved for another few rounds yet. It lead to a most fascinating post-movie debate afterwards with my moviegoing companion Patrick, in which we each took the sides of the character we felt was in the right – me with Jesse, who struck me as the most reasonable, compassionate and forgiving, and he with Céline who he felt deserved a free pass for being an intelligent complicated woman labouring under 2,000 years of patriarchal rule and being morally superior for not being male or American. (You can read more about Patrick’s take on the film here). As it happened, Jesse provided a witty ripose to this argument, pointing out to Céline that her expensive Sorbonne education, personal freedoms and stay-at-home partner are evidence of feminism’s triumph, not its failure. (Thanks, Jesse).

“You are the mayor of Crazy Town!”, Jesse finally tells Céline, to which I said a silent “Amen”. Full credit though to Delpy who, unusually for most actresses, doesn’t give a fig about being likeable, and really goes for broke. It was horrible, though, seeing a couple – albeit a fictional one – who you thought were ideal for each other reduced to ripping at each others’ throats, and revealing that their life together is based on guilt, transference, evasion and other emotional quicksand that forms everyone else’s shitty relationships. Linklater and the actors contrive a twelfth-hour reconciliation scene, literally before midnight, though as with the earlier films, it’s unclear what the future will bring. Pessimists will imagine that they’re headed for an acrimonious split; the optimists tune into Jesse’s final speech to Céline about embracing life as it is now, not what as you may have imagined it to be, which she might just take on board.

As someone of almost the same age as Jesse and Céline, I recognised a lot of my own generational fears in them: the lingering suspicion that life as it’s played out hasn’t matched all my youthful imaginings for myself, that a wrong path has been taken and bad choices made that now can’t be reversed, that the promise and optimism of youth is now firmly behind me, and that there’s not sufficient time to sing all the guitar songs I want to sing. Unlike Jesse and Céline, I don’t even have the solace of a long-term relationship or children to ground me in something other than myself and my thoughts. Though I have a life of comparative freedom that Céline, with her twins, her unfulfulling job and paranoia over her “fading” looks (that aren’t fading at all) might envy – but does my comparative weightlessless make my life more exciting than hers, or simply less meaningful and less fulfilled?

Whatever the answers to those questions might be, I’m grateful that there was a third film to Jesse and Céline’s story. Like a fictional, upwardly mobile version of the Seven-Up documentary series, Linklater’s films have moved in parallel with my own adult life (albeit slightly less regularly), and served as intriguing markers for my generation, as well as being accomplished pieces of entertainment. Though all narrative films are, of course, artificial constructs, the Before series has come the closest to combining a poetics of compressed real time experience with the Hollywood romantic staple of pretty people sauntering through glamorous European cities and falling in (and possibly out of) love with each other. I wish more films shared its intelligence, roving curiosity about human nature, generosity of spirit and sense of fun. The third time really is the charm – Bravo.

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