Celine and Jesse Forever? — Bittersweet, richly satisfying "Before Midnight" cuts deep

Before Midnight (2013)
109 min., rated R.

In 1995, co-writer and director Richard Linklater achieved something wonderfully rare and daringly special for independent cinema and cinema in general. Scripted but feeling improvised, "Before Sunrise" was basically a 101-minute-long conversation, a dreamy, literate, enchanting slice-of-life treasure for grown-ups with naturalistic chitchat and naturally charming performances from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy. "Before Sunset," the 2004 follow-up/reunion, was even better, so airy but smart, intimate and sublimely satisfying that this viewer was sad when it was over. Starting as two cultured, articulate 23-year-old strangers who met by chance on a train to Vienna and spent one night together, then reunited in Paris nine years later to walk and talk some more, Jesse (Hawke), the American, and Celine (Delphy), the Parisian, are done with chance encounters and the Honeymoon Phase. 

Eighteen years later in "Before Midnight," the unmarried middle-aged couple are on vacation in the Peloponnese of Greece. Having put his teenage son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), from his failed marriage, on the plane back to Chicago, 41-year-old writer Jesse wonders if he's missing out on his boy's life. Celine isn't about to leave her work and move out of Paris, but the two continue their summer retreat with their twin daughters and other couples at a villa. Eventually, when they're treated to get away from the kids and stay at a hotel, piercing truths and pent-up resentments explode into the open. Something's gotta give, but perhaps Jesse and Celine really are meant to be together. 

Communication has always been a big part of this chatty, low-key "walking-and-talking" trilogy, something that most Hollywood studio romances don't dare. If the viewer is not attuned to the spontaneous, off-the-cuff vibe and long, real-time takes, they will find out immediately, especially in a ten-plus-minute shot of Jesse and Celine's loquacious ride home from the airport. It seems these two will never run out of things to talk about, which makes them so engaging. Alternately wistful, joyful, and uncomfortably honest, "Before Midnight" never betrays its verisimilitude, coming off so authentic that one might grow restless even. But don't move; this is a mature, bittersweet story of staying together after two people left it up to chance to get together. Co-written by Linklater and his stars, the script is tight and full of witty give-and-take that never feels rehearsed, plus it has a lot to say about the juggling of careers, parenthood, love, sex, and relationships. Nothing really happens and yet we are privy to Jesse and Celine's lasting relationship, which doesn't play out like something from the movies or a fairy tale.

Forming a lived-in relationship across three movies, Hawke and Delphy are just beautiful together, expanding upon their lovely, effortless chemistry as Jesse and Celine. As these characters have stayed together and have hit another decade in their lives, the actors are the most emotionally available they've been, too. They feel like the same people we met in '95 and revisited in '04 but less naïve and more weary. Their heated, full-blown argument, set in the hotel room, bites hard and cuts deep. Loaded with irrational words and sarcasm ("Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head into a toaster!"), the scene is tense and painful without feeling overwrought or too understated but does feel a little winded after one of them walks out the door threefold. Still, these people never feel submissive or shrill or whiny because they're so real, appealing, and frank.

All three films work as stand-alone films, but having the other two under your belt before watching "Before Midnight," it's an even richer, deeper, more cathartic experience. (And not only are the Grecian locations gorgeous to drink in on their own, but Christos Voudouris' cinematography couldn't be more glowing). This third chapter in the saga of Jesse and Celine may not have the same excitingly hopeful and romantic flow as "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," but it is an essential continuum, as the makers end on a sweet, perfectly ambiguous note. Will Jesse and Celine remain soul mates? Where will they go from here? Is this their final chapter? Only time will tell. Even if we don't catch up with Jesse and Celine in another nine years or thirty-six years from now in the potentially titled "Before Death," this is a satisfying end. And, in a Big Event-laden summer, a dialogue- and character-driven film is a refreshing tonic.

Grade:  B +