Sundance 2013: Linklater’s ‘Before Midnight’ impressively dissects love in long term relationships
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
Poignantly upending audience expectations about sentimental movie romance, the power behind Before Midnight is that it is built upon a trust two films deep. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset tugged at the heart strings for how well American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy) were able to connect in such brief encounters. They seemed destined for each other even as their separate lives tore them apart. It turns out that from where we left off with them 9 years ago that they indeed did end up with each other. What then comes after the happy ending? It is an utter stroke of brilliance that the couple that fans have longed to be together for nearly 20 years completely skips over the honeymoon phase and is taken straight to enduring the complex, often bitter problems that any relationship is likely to suffer. Defiantly denying conventional satisfaction, director Richard Linklater pulls no punches in dealing with the concrete facts they now know about each other and how they might manage to make it work despite of their failings.
We find Jesse and Celine at the end of a summer vacation in a picturesque Grecian writer’s retreat. In showing us an extended dinner conversation with other couples that are both younger and older than them, the commentary on love is opened up to be more inclusive of contrasting experiences. While some of this feels contrived, these couples inadvertently spark buried feelings within them. Breaking the mold of the other movies stresses how dramatically their lives have changed. All grown up, it is a rarity to be absolutely alone. Our couple coexists in a tension that teeters on erupting but has been kept at bay by the busyness of professional obligations and children. The intimate conversations that they treasured in the past for their brevity have become tested by time and routine. Their rapport is still good but now informed by anecdotes and lessons about each other. Continued philosophizing about love is at turns nostalgic and sad, colored by animosity from unresolved issues. They are surrounded by beauty but have a tough time not laying into each other. Laughter and anguish are effectively sprinkled throughout their talks. It is profound that the script finds that the strong personalities which brought them together might also ultimately be their end.
Their lives are intermingled to the point where they can no longer make major decisions without the other. Celine worrying about how Jesse might resent her for not wanting to move to America to be closer to his son leads to picking a monstrous fight that he refuses to engage in. The arguing gets relentless and quite painful but is realistically driven to root out what their problems are. Some may find that Celine comes across too forceful and accusatory. In her defense, she has had years of anxiety and suspicion welling up inside her. Jesse brushing off her apprehensions comes off cruel and as though he just doesn’t want to listen anymore. His reassurances to her seem to come from a good place even if they are tainted by misdeeds or lack of providing household help. Although still sympathetic characters, they are selfish in distinguished ways and neither wants to concede much fault. The constant talking grows weary but fans will want to see how it all turns out. Can they come back from the trepidations and mistakes most couples split over? Truly knowing each other at their best and worse triggers ugly revelations in a battle to get back to why they are together at all.
The complexity of syncing personal and professional lives is no easy feat for anyone. Dwelling on the real work needed to sustain romantic love for someone you deeply care for is an indication of how the stars and director have matured. Written by all three of them (who in the past 20 years have known serious romance and had children) this film points to how real life problems with lovers are worked out. The fatigue in which they often regard one another is disheartening but accomplishes a thorough and important rumination on how elaborate relationships grow as time marches on. There is a an exceptional amount of suspense in Before Midnight if you’re invested. The end of the trilogy appreciates the audience’s emotional involvement, sometimes abuses it but finds a fitting way to say farewell.
– Lane Scarberry
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 17 to October 27, 2012. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official website.