Conversations about a damaged marriage

Before Midnight (MA). Director: Richard Linklater. Starring: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke. 109 minutes

Eighteen years have passed since Before Sunrise, writer-director Linklater's gorgeous paean to the idealism of youth and intensity of new love. In it, American writer Jesse (Hawke) and French woman Celine (Delpy) meet on a train travelling across Europe, spontaneously disembark together and spend a long night talking life, literature and art on the streets of Vienna. At the end they part, pledging to meet back in Vienna in one year's time.

Before Midnight picks up the thread with a now middle-aged Jesse and Celine holidaying in Greece with their two young daughters. It is the third installment (after 2004's Before Sunset) and like its predecessors is built around a series of long and intimate conversations, this time finding the fray, familiarity and fineness in the fabric of a long-term relationship. It is minimalist dramatic cinema at its best; a work of subdued and unlikely genius.

Unlikely, because on the surface there is something repellent about the film. The characters are entitled and self-absorbed. They are in Greece on the invitation of an older writer, who is interested in the achievements of Jesse, who is by now an accomplished novellist. The sight of Jesse lolling about the grounds of the writer's rural homestead, expounding the recondite premise of his next book, might rightly induce eye-rolling.

Their experience of Greece is of the postcard variety; idyllic, and numb to the current grim reality of that country. Yet to an extent that's beside the point. Despite the film's endless large conversations, its focus is smaller. Discussions of philosophy and art illuminate individual worldviews and reveal how their conflict or confluence impacts the lived reality of relationships. 'Conversation' and 'relationship' become interchangeable terms.

In this regard, Before Midnight is compelling. Hawke and Delpy share co-writing credit with Linklater, and immerse themselves in the characters, probing every fierce and fragile corner of their emotional being. They follow the complex coils and contours of conversations that circumvent points of pain or conflict, or occasionally land upon them with furious, destructive honesty. Whatever their pretensions, these characters and their relationship live.

These are fine actors who share a palpable chemistry that is the greatest strength of Linklater's films. In Before Midnight a cute, sweet game of watching the sun set ('Going... going...' chimes Celine) turns abruptly to profound sadness, as the sun dips below the horizon and Celine, whose look of deep sorrow is mirrored in Jesse's, utters, '… gone'. The powerful emotion of this simple scene reveals the hidden complexity of the performances.

The weakest (though by no means weak) installment of Linklater's series was Before Sunset, in which Jesse and Celine were reunited for the first time since meeting in Vienna, having missed the original pledged rendezvous. It was engaging but somewhat unfulfilling, following the characters for 80-odd minutes through the streets of Paris in a single uninterrupted take, and coming off more like a filmmaking exercise than a complete and satisfying film.

Before Midnight is more robust, with a longer running time and expanded cast. There is a scene in which Celine and Jesse share lunch with three other couples, one older, one younger, one of similar age. The conversations here about the nature of relationships at these different stages, provide a template for Celine and Jesse to reflect upon the past and future of their own relationship; nostalgia and cynicism for the former, dimmed hope for the latter.

It provides thematic context for the conversations that occur as the film turns with voyeuristic vigour to address all the ugliness and beauty of their present. They head out to enjoy a final night in Greece, eventually landing in a hotel, where the conversation goes swiftly from lightness, to intimacy, to pragmatism, to confrontation, to something akin to exorcism. The film ends on a hopeful note, but in no doubt that the conversation is unfinished.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Before Midnight, Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Greece



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