Richard Linklater | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Greece / English | 15 / R
The third film in co-writer/director Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy catches up with couple Celine (Julie Delpy, also a co-writer) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke, the third co-writer) in middle age, after years of being together, with two kids (plus his kid from a previous relationship) and a host of problems bubbling under the surface.
Linklater got a lot of attention for shooting coming-of-age drama Boyhood in real-time over 12 years, but for my money he’s used a similar technique to much better effect in this trilogy. It’s a different way of handling it, of course: Boyhood was filmed across all 12 of those years, following the characters closely as they grow and change; whereas the Before films drop us in for a crucial few hours once every nine years, thereby offering a more concentrated experience of time on screen, but covering so much more in what’s discussed and implied about the time in between our visits.
The first two films — 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset — are marked by an unreserved romanticism. Midnight is notably different, abandoning that lovey-dovey-ness and replacing it with a powerful examination of the tension in a long-term relationship. In some respects, it’s all the better for it. That’s in no way a criticism of the previous films (I still think Sunrise is first among equals), but it’s realistic that, as time goes on, people change. They can’t be young-spirited and full of the joys of first love forever. Well, they could, but it wouldn’t be life and relationships as most of us know it.
Their interpersonal turmoil is all the more affecting because we’ve connected with these characters on and off in real-time for a couple of decades. Consequently, I can’t remember the last time I went on such an emotional rollercoaster. It’s not just realistic, but brave, to choose to swing the film in such a quarrelsome direction, rather than just show them rekindle old passions (again). It leads to an entirely different effect: the first two leave you feeling warm and fuzzy; this is more like being punched in the gut. And yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. Rather than feeling out of place when put next to its forebears, Midnight feels like a necessary addition.
My original reviews of Sunrise and Sunset from 2007 (linked earlier) are both marked as 4 out of 5, but I don’t stand by that. I watched them again before Midnight and would unequivocally give them each 5 stars. I wouldn’t want anyone to read all three reviews and think I’m rating Midnight as better than its predecessors. As a trilogy, they’re all almost equally good. I say “almost” because the hard-hitting emotional realism of this one is kinda depressing, while the unabashed romanticism of the first two is lovely. Maybe how you are as a person dictates which of those ends of the spectrum you prefer, because the dramatic shift in tone does not presage a shift in quality. Put another way, on a qualitative level I think they’re all 5s, but I love the first two that bit more because they’re nicer… but perhaps less real. Either way, together they are one of the greatest trilogies ever made.
I really hope they do a fourth one, though. Maybe it’s just because I want to spend more time with these characters, but I also feel a little that the series might need balance. As I’ve said, the first two are so of a piece, the third isn’t, so perhaps there’s room for one more ‘act’ to even that up. Or, hey, why not just make another one every nine years until the inevitable? (Now I’m just getting greedy.) Ethan Hawke has observed that Sunrise begins with Celine and Jesse watching a couple in their 40s arguing and Midnight is about Celine and Jesse as a couple in their 40s arguing, so maybe it’s an apt place to stop. But he also says that all it takes is for one of them to have an idea that excites the other two and they’d do it again, so perhaps we can look forward to Before Midday in 2022 after all.
Before Midnight placed 2nd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw in 2018.