The consensus selection for the best new film of 2013, six months in, Richard Linklater's Before Midnight conceivably brings one of the recent screen's richest franchises, such as it is, to a courageously corrosive close: eighteen years after early twenty-somethings Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) first became acquainted over a deeply romantic day and night (Before Sunrise, 1995), and another nine since the couple re-connected for a real-time afternoon reunion in Céline's Paris (Before Sunset, 2004), Before Midnight finds the pair on an ultimately argument-filled final day of an extended family vacation in Greece's Peloponnese. The bliss of first sight and rapture of a rekindled (elicit) romance is replaced in Linklater's latest by middle-aged negotiations of familial obligations and career ambitions - or, by the fallout of a passion pursued at all costs. Though it will in this sense prove quite different in the particularity of its subject and the perspectives it offers, Before Midnight emerges nonetheless as a sort of contemporary Symposium, with an extended dinner table conversation replicating the sequence of encomiums that lends Plato's work its structure. Jesse, Céline and (most of all) their Greek dining companions present their twenty-first century standpoints on the differences between the two sexes and (cf. Aristophanes's memorably oddball speech) the romantic economy and virtues of the two, remaining separate or becoming one.
Before Midnight, no less than its predecessors - let us say here that until further notice, Linklater's reputation deserves to reside with these three outstanding efforts - is a talking cinema, most of all. It is in this sense a displaced object of the director's 1990s, of a not-too-distant age in which the mind still seemed a worthy competitor to the body, our own present day's all-consuming concern. More importantly, judging from the film's visual and verbal signposting, is the largely European tradition that Before Midnight extends. Foremost among Linklater and co-screenwriters Delpy and Hawke's sources is Rossellini's expressly referenced Viaggio in Italia (1954), which provides not only an overarching thematic and structure in its inscriptions of mid-life marital tensions (and a final-act romantic resolution), but also presaging passages of conversation, be it Before Midnight's single-take, front-seat two-shot or the couple's speculative perambulation (where mention is indeed made of the mid-century masterpiece's Pompeii set-piece). Visually, in the blocking and reverse-field cutting of its seaside sunset, and verbally in its aforementioned moment of dinner-table dialogue, Before Midnight equally calls to mind Eric Rohmer's very great Le Rayon vert (1986). In fact, we might look to Le Rayon vert likewise for an ancestor to Delpy's occasionally (if not often) unlikable or irritating lead - given especially that Rohmer's female star, Marie Rivière, also earned a co-writing credit for her work in the aforementioned, dialogue-centered feature. Rivière's Delphine, in other words, provides the self-critical template for Delpy's auto-expression.
Following the romantic fantasies that structure the first two films, Before Midnight seeks instead to impart the unpleasant realities and work of their now long-term committed relationship. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy's film confronts and exposes, with the latter again taking the on-screen lead: in one of the series' most instantly iconic and memorable moments, Delpy remains topless for an extended duration as she begins to make love to her partner, answers a telephone call from Jesse's son Hank and then commences to argue with her lover after she fails to give him the phone. It is indeed in the protracted dispute that thus begins, an argument in which Céline decries Jesse's rational tone and wonders aloud if she no longer loves her Before Sunrise one-night stand, where Linklater's latest really shows its emotional weight. As surpassingly clever as the consistently self-reflexive first hour may be, with its conspicuous fictional doubling of the first two films in Jesse's name-checked novels - though it might also be argued that the ESL dialogue does not always provide an entirely adequate match - it is the force of the film's hotel-room finale that insures Before Midnight's greater achievement: as the richest and most mature film about heterosexual relationships since Maren Ade's Everyone Else (2009). 2013's midpoint critical hit feels destined for end-of-the-year, list-season domination.
This piece was co-authored by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.