So, this is it. You can keep your Man Of Steels, your Iron Man 3s, your Star Trek : Into Darknesses, and your Pacific Rims — fun popcorn fare some of those may be, but for me summer 2013 at the movies is all about the third installment in Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy’s long-running cinematic romance, Before Midnight. I won’t rehash the details of how and why this unlikeliest of indie “franchises” has meant so much to this armchair critic on a personal level over the years — hell, over the decades now! — as my reviews of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset last week covered that ground pretty damn thoroughly already, suffice to say that the chance to see Jesse and Celine living happily ever after is, at the risk of sounding hopelessly corny, a little bit of a celluloid dream come true for yours truly. And so here it is — and here they are, doing just that.
Or are they? Okay, sure, they’re together — and have been, apparently, since the conclusion of Before Sunset nine years ago. They’ve got twin daughters, successful careers (Jesse as a novelist and English professor, Celine as an environmental activist) in Paris, and are just winding up spending a magical summer at a writer’s retreat in the Greek Islands. Sounds ideal, right?
But all is not, of course, well in paradise — Jesse’s torn about the son he left behind in the US and wants to be a more active part of his life, Celine feels stifled by the apparently-tranquil domesticity of her situation and has no desire to move back to America for Jesse to be near his kid, and both are struggling with the the ever-narrowing possibilities life offers up as we age and our thousands of dreams get whittled down to a more concrete set of responsibilities. The passing years have seen “must do”s replace “want to”s in their lives, and one of the running themes of all of these Before pictures is that of somehow finding a way for love and passion and the sheer wonder of being with another person who understands and accepts us for who we are to survive amidst all that.
They seem to be doing their best. Their sex life is still refreshingly healthy for a cinematic couple on the cusp of middle age, they still walk and talk like the two young lovebirds who met on the train to Vienna, and they still show a genuine affection for one another that can give all of us some small measure of hope. But half the film is consumed by a fairly heated and wide-ranging argument in a hotel room that lays bare the many fault lines underpinning in their relationship. The only question, it seems, is whether they’ll continue to navigate those together or choose to go their separate ways.
Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke, who collaborated on the screenplay together once again (though it’s still nice to see them share character-creation credits with Linklater’s friend, the late Kim Krizan), strike a very delicate balance here between presenting the “heaviest” material we’ve yet to see in this series with the most lighthearted, comedic sequences to date, as well, and the end result is a film that’s not just a joy to watch, but to absorb, from its first frame to its last.
My long-standing group of friends I’ve seen all these films with waited until we could all see it together, and over the customary after-movie drinks last night we all agreed on two things — we loved it to pieces, even though it was, in many instances, the most difficult of the bunch to take in; and we couldn’t wait to see it again. It’s just a bit too early to figure out where we’d rank this is the entire — uhhmmmm — “pantheon,” I guess, after only one viewing, ya see.
Now, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to unceremoniously transition into a personal plea here — rumors are swirling that this might be the final Before of the bunch, and if that’s the case, I think it’s well past time for Oscar to show it a little respect. Yes, this series enjoys a deeply passionate and committed following, but it sure would be nice if Hollywood’s establishment paid some attention to this evolving little piece of wonderment that’s been happening under their noses for nearly two decades. Hawke and Delpy have both affected subtle body-language shifts over the years to delineate their characters’ evolving personalities (he walks with more swagger than ever, for instance, while she exudes an air of peace-that’s-looking-for-any-excuse-to-erupt resignation) that perfectly complement their maturation on paper and each is deserving of a Best Actor/Actress in a Leading Role nomination, and if the three collaborators aren’t recognized with a nod for Best Original Screenplay, there seriously ought to be an investigation. Hell, unless something else comes along that completely knocks our collective socks off, there ought to be an investigation if they don’t win it. Let’s get the email, blog, forum, etc. pressure campaign started right here — who’s with me on this?
Before Midnight is the most authentically human picture to come down the pipeline in ages, and traverses a rocky yet rewarding emotional terrain with grace, warmth, and yes, even charm. It shows how love endures when initial , lustful ehuberance ages into a kind of occasionally- resplendent ardor, and how it finds its level and holds us aloft even when we get everything we’ve ever wanted only to find out it’s still not exactly what we were yearning for (humans, we’re so picky). It’s the “happily ever after” we’ve always wanted for Jesse and Celine — and for ourselves — warts and all. And I’m so completely in love with the cinema, and even with life, again it damn near hurts. If this is, indeed, the end — and I sincerely hope it’s not, I want to grow old with these characters — it couldn’t be more perfectly imperfect, more gloriously flawed, more tragically comedic, more uneasily blissful.