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Berlin Film Festival review: Before Midnight starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy

This navel gazing film from Richard Linklater is witty and well written but tries too hard to give the illusion of spontaneity

Before Midnight is the latest collaboration between director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. It comes almost a decade after Before Sunset (2004), which in turn followed on a similar period after Before Sunrise (1995). 

Reflecting the fact that Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are now middle-aged, the new film is far more barbed and cynical than its predecessors. In its darker moments, as the couple bicker relentlessly, this is closer to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? than to conventional romantic drama. It’s also witty, very well written and surprisingly insightful about the pleasures and pitfalls of long-term relationships.

As the story starts, Jesse (still a successful author) and Celine are on holiday with their twin daughters in an idyllic part of Greece. Jesse has just said goodbye to his son, who is returning home to Chicago where he lives with Jesse’s ex-wife. Celine is about to start a new job in Paris, where they live, but Jesse wants the family to return to the US to be closer to Hank.

Linklater’s storytelling style remains the same as in the first two films. This is a walking and talking movie in which the two leads are on camera together almost all the time. Their main topic of discussion remains themselves. They anatomise their own feelings for one another at inordinate length.

The filmmakers try hard to give the illusion of spontaneity. Delpy and Hawke perform in relaxed, freewheeling style, as if they are making up their dialogue as they go along. In fact, the film is highly stylized. Linklater must have gone to extraordinary pains to shoot the very lengthy single take sequence in which we see Jesse and Celine talking in the car as their sisters sleep in the back seat. It is obvious, too, that Before Midnight has been very carefully scripted.

At times, the navel gazing becomes a little grating. The sequence in which Jesse and Celine have a meal with a Robert Graves-like writer (played by veteran British cinematographer Walter Lassally) verges on the self-indulgent. Some of Jesse’s ruminations on literature and life have an affected quality. What lifts the film is the rapport between the leads and their impeccable comic timing.

In the final part of the film, the couple spend what is supposed to be a romantic night away from their kids in a hotel in a picturesque town. They can’t escape their pathological urge to talk. Even when Celine is topless and they are trying to make love, they end up analyzing their relationship and career plans instead.

The overall point that the film makes is familiar and even trite. When lovers know each other inside out, the familiarity dulls the passion. Celine and Jesse’s capacity to goad and insult each other becomes increasingly evident. If it wasn’t for the humour, there would be a real undertow of viciousness here. In the end, though, the feuding cathartic. We’re never in real doubt about the affection they still feel for one another after all these years.