Writing here in 2004 about Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, I almost lost myself in rhapsody: “Watching Before Sunset I increasingly felt the detritus built up from years of imprecise viewing was being cleared away, allowing a return to something purer and elemental (I know that’s overdone – but it really is how I felt). The film makes you realize the mundanity of most people in movies now – we watch them as figures in a narrative, maybe we fear for or even cry for them, but the lights come up and they’re soon forgotten. It’s popular to point out that stars now don’t match up to those of the 30’s and 40’s, and it’s true, but in fairness nothing about the infrastructure gives the current contenders much of a chance. In Before Sunset the film slows down, their faces fill the screen, and they flood over us.” I went on like that for several more paragraphs too.
The film was a sequel to Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy played Jesse and Celine, two students spending a night together in Vienna. At the end of that film they agreed to reunite in six months’ time: Before Sunset informed us that he turned up and she didn’t, but then they meet again nine years later and take off together for a coffee, even as the clock ticks down to his departure for the airport. That film ended (beautifully) on a highly unresolved note; in the new film Before Midnight we learn that they stayed together (without getting married), and live in Paris, with twin daughters; he teaches and writes novels (drawing heavily on their own past); she balances motherhood with a career in what sounds like environmental advocacy of some kind. The film places them in Greece though, at the end of a six-week vacation; as the film begins, his son by his ex-wife leaves to return to the States, causing him to worry about his failures as a long-distance father. The two share a dinner with friends and then walk to a nearby hotel, where they’re spending a night away from the kids, and where all their resentments and dissatisfactions bust open.
The new film has generally been greeted as enthusiastically as its predecessors. For example, in a Slate piece headlined “The third Before Sunrise film is not just good, it is nearly perfect,” Tim Wu said: “Dialogue between the principals, as expected, is pitch-perfect. But there’s something new here: the language of marital battle, which rises to a ferocity comparable only to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But if you can take it, and if you know you love your partner, but find yourself frustrated and angry nonetheless, this film cannot be missed. In a manner arguably unequaled in film, Before Midnight captures exactly just what makes it so infuriatingly hard to stay in any relationship.” It follows that this would have to be a more exacting kind of near-perfection, the purity I mentioned in the preceding film replaced by the contamination of time and experience, hope and giddiness replaced by realism and compromise. Before Midnight, you might reason, could aspire to be as accomplished as its predecessors, but not as purely pleasurable. After all, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, if the comparison’s valid, is barely pleasurable at all by usual standards.
As it is, I don’t think the comparison to Virginia Woolf makes much sense at all, and Before Midnight probably goes down too easily for its own good. The film doesn’t work through a heightened stylization in any way comparable to Albee’s play, and doesn’t have anything as tragic at its centre. As in the previous movies, the approach here is naturalistic, aiming for the messy rhythms of normal conversation, but on this occasion that yields a nagging sense of extreme contrivance. In Before Sunset, the device of having them reunite just before his scheduled departure for the airport justified a high degree of cramming and compression, but there’s nothing particularly artful about the new film’s juxtaposition of Hawke’s familial preoccupations, her reaching a career milestone, and – for God’s sake – his receiving a text message that his grandmother died, all within a few hours. Wu says the film contains “perhaps the most interesting dinner conversation of all time,” but it’s too interesting to feel true – the dialogue is all nicely spaced and distributed, with none of the digressions and dead zones of real social intercourse: everyone talks entirely in comic or metaphysical zingers (or both). (And as an aside, I’m not sure why Linklater chose to cast the dinner with unhelpful extra-textual digressions, such as having the group’s elder statesman played by Walter Lassally, who won an Oscar for the cinematography of Zorba the Greek in 1964).
This sense diminishes somewhat as the movie strips down to the two of them, but there’s still a bothersome sense of an entire life of conversational eggs being shoved into a single day’s basket: Celine chooses this day to ask unanswerable questions such as whether he’d approach her on the train now as he did when he first saw her, or heavier ones such as whether he had an affair with a particular woman. By the mediocre standards of mainstream American cinema, it’s all gloriously written and performed, no question. But it feels more like a mainstream American film than its predecessors, not least in the persistent refusal of that cinema to make films about normal people.
The great majority of “marital battles” take place in infinitely drabber physical and psychic circumstances than we’re witnessing here; most couples couldn’t even imagine being approached by a stranger for an autograph, or possessing the mobility and resources whereby living in Chicago versus Paris is effectively a matter of choice. For all Celine and Jesse’s problems, viewers are still more likely to see them as an aspirational ideal than as some kind of direct touchstone, and to the extent they embody the latter, it’s expressed through tired observations about how men believe in fairies who pick up their dirty socks, and the like.
I don’t mean to go overboard in expressing my disappointment, because for all the reservations I’ve expressed about it, Before Midnight is a compelling film. The two actors and their director remain in perfect sync – Delpy’s beautiful pain-in-the-ass quality is particularly well-utilized. If they continue to make these films every nine or ten years – and I certainly hope they do – then it’ll be one of the more delightful projects in modern cinema. But the new film tips closer to the category of “stunt” than “examination.” Maybe it was futile to imagine it could have been any other way, and yet the earlier films seemed capable of almost anything.