Monday, October 28, 2013

Before Midnight: Love in Maturity

Before Midnight
US, 2013
Directed and co-written (with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) by Richard Linklater

The Before series, featuring stars and co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and writer/director Richard Linklater, is one of the more original cinematic projects of the last few decades. Each film takes place over a discrete period of time on a single day, and each entry has been separated by nearly a decade in both our time and in the world of the series. We covered the first film, Before Sunrisea long time ago on the blog, and while I could describe that again along with the second film, Before Sunset, to set this one up, I'm not sure what value that would bring. I don't know why someone would watch this third entry without having seen the first two. You probably could do it, since the characters and their relationship are so well-drawn that they pop off of the screen, but why would you want to? These stories are just as much about the passing of time and the development of the characters between films as they are the scant time we spend in their company on screen. So if you haven't seen the first two films and don't want to know where Céline and Jesse wind up, stop here.

Before Midnight picks up the story nine years after Jesse skipped his post-book tour flight to stay in Paris with Céline. In the interim, his marriage has broken up, leading to a painful custody-sharing arrangement over his son Hank (Seamus-Davey Fitzpatrick). He and Céline, who remain unmarried, now have twin daughters (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior), and this film finds the whole family summering at a writer's retreat in southern Greece. They drop Hank off at the airport, return to the retreat for a meal with their colleagues, take a long walk, and then go off to a hotel for a night alone. That's more or less it as far as "action" is concerned, but the Before films are more about character than plot.

The characters here are now entering middle age, but still find themselves struggling to find a continued purpose and meaning. He's upset about not being around for his son and debates moving back to the US to be with him. She's growing weary of balancing life as a working mom, and considering a major career change. The two still have an easy chemistry, though both have long since gotten over the wild-eyed romanticism and idealism that drew them together 18 years earlier on that train to Vienna. But if that first film was about meeting and exploring each other as new, exciting possibilities, and the second about reconnecting with and rediscovering each other, this film is about growing accustomed to the point of becoming annoyed by or even inured to each other. The characters are aging, their needs are changing, and perhaps after almost a decade apart followed up with nearly a decade in each other's company, they've each solved all of each other's mysteries.

Characterized by the same long takes, beautiful scenery, nearly real-time pacing, and dialogue-heavy scenes as its predecessors, Before Midnight merely shifts the scenery to the Peloponnese and brings the tone of the conversation forward in maturity. They've heard most of each other's stories, and instead of their dreams and naive philosophies, the two talk now about practical matters, about each other's failings, and about their responsibilities to the family. As a result, the tone is somewhat heavier and darker than either of the previous two films, though no less truthful. Linklater's sparse cutting and unobtrusive camera let us feel as though we're watching the characters' lives simply unfold before us. The script also gives the impression of spontaneity and improvisation, though all involved insist that little-to-no improvisation actually happens, as the tight filming schedule and economics of indie production don't allow much breathing room.

That conversational, unscripted feeling, then, is really a testament to how well Hawke and Delpy play these roles, roles of a lifetime in more than one sense. Even when they fight, it's nice to spend time in their company again, and both are incredibly distinct, lived-in, real characters. It's hard not to look at Hawke and see the young kid he was, the kid with whom he still shares so many mannerisms and defense mechanisms. Delpy's Céline, meanwhile, has lost none of her fiery certainty and love for psychological games. It's easy to see the traces of who they were and why they fell in love, which also means its easy to see who they are and why it might not work anymore.

In that sense, the most impressive thing about Before Midnight is how, after two exceedingly romantic pictures, the filmmakers manage in the third to put us in a position where these characters we've known for two decades seem on the verge of splitting... and we're OK with whatever they choose to do. This darkness made me enjoy the film less than I enjoyed the first two, but that's sort of the point: romance and passion fade and aren't the true face of love. Love is something that lives in commitment, trust, growth, and mutual compromise. It's also about self-knowledge, which is why our own perceptions and life experiences are just as important as the contents of each film—and why I don't blame this one for my own slight coldness towards it. I suspect I'll relate to the film better when I myself am a little older and perhaps a little readier to accept the realities of long-term love over the excitement of getting to know a person. And since these characters continue to grow and change between films, right alongside us, I can only hope we get to check in with them again, wherever they may wind up, another nine years down the line.

No comments:

Post a Comment