A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 1, 2013.
“Before Midnight” is the beautiful and complicated third entry in a series of films about a relationship that began in “Before Sunrise” and continued in “Before Sunset.”
“Sunrise” introduces us to Jesse and Celine, attractive, eloquent twenty-somethings whose early flirtations on a train lead to a night-long conversation through the streets of Vienna. It ends with them promising to meet up again in six months to continue the undefined bond they’ve formed throughout the night. When the movie ends, they don’t quite know they’re soul mates, but we do.
“Sunset” takes place nine years later. Jesse is at a bookstore in Paris, promoting his new novel that depicts a young man who finds true love one auspicious night in Vienna. Celine shows up. They haven’t seen each other since that night. They go to a coffee shop to catch up and soon begin walking through Paris, talking around each other to avoid confronting their resurgent emotions.
Things are more complicated this time. Jesse is married and has a son. Celine has a boyfriend. Nonetheless, they end up at her apartment. They talk some more. There’s music and a little dancing. The credits roll.
“Before Midnight” fills in the gap between its beginning and the end of “Sunset.” Once again, about nine years have passed. Jesse and Celine are together, with twin daughters. They’re spending the summer in Greece with a group of aesthetes and writers. A conversation over dinner consists of arguments for and against romantic love. One character finds the notion ridiculous.
“I wish I’d been born to your generation,” she says, speaking highly of a younger, more carefree notion of romance.
We don’t believe her and neither does she.
But her arguments challenge the very foundation of Jesse and Celine’s relationship, as does the rest of the movie, through tender confessions, troubling revelations, and warm humor.
As in the previous entries, “Before Midnight” has no easy answers. Rather, it depicts the multifarious complexities of love, how it can flourish even against the implacable obstacles of time and space. It is about the logistics of passion, how raising children inevitably compromises relationships and personal aspirations.
Yet there’s a lurking optimism behind the negativity, an affirmation that unconditional love is resilient in the face of cheap and earnest payoffs.
More so than the first two films, “Before Midnight” plays with our expectations and desires, eschewing easy outcomes in favor of an ambiguous, yet satisfying realism. The movie is about foreplay itself, sexual and emotional, how the only type of time love knows is the present, how an impassioned lead-up can exist and be appreciated in the absence of a conclusion.
In one scene, Jesse and Celine argue over the compromises they’ve made for each other. As the tension deflates, Jesse starts to pour two glasses of red wine, signifying a resolution, but by the time the glasses are full, a new argument has already arisen. Not a sip of wine is taken by either character.
Because “Before Midnight” is fervently against resolutions, embracing sometimes ugly, but always honest romance over romanticizations.
It is a masterpiece.
4 stars out of 4.