Film review: Before Midnight - The third in the trilogy... and the best

5.00

(15)

Trust Richard Linklater to buck the tradition. Whereas most sequels are dire, and "threequels" even worse, Before Midnight – the third film in a talky trilogy begun nearly 20 years ago – is as good as, if not better than, its predecessors. In this select group it joins Toy Story 3 and, er, that's it.

The film reunites director Linklater with his two actors and co-writers Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who, as Celine and Jesse, had their first brief encounter on a Vienna-bound train in Before Sunrise (1995). In the second film, Before Sunset (2004), they met again when Celine, back in her native Paris, turned up at a bookshop to see Jesse reading from his first novel, the story of The Girl Who Got Away. The ending left their relationship tantalisingly poised: would Jesse go back to his wife and son in the US, or make a fresh start with his lost love Celine?

Before Midnight answers that question, then goes on to pose a few more. Jesse and Celine, now in their forties, stayed in Paris and raised twin daughters, cutely haloed in blonde curls. We first see them en famille driving back from the Greek airport where Jesse has just seen off his adolescent son Hank. It's a good opener. Whereas Jesse is anxious and needy, the boy is quite at ease, not even thinking to hurt his dad when he reminds him that "mom hates you so much".

The words trouble Jesse (though he already knew it) and incubate significant tensions between him and Celine for the rest of the day. Should he move them back to Chicago, where he can at least be a father to Hank? His doubts are expressed, lightly, in the long take of the couple driving back, then more persistently, and chillingly, as the film darkens into night. That take, by the way, lasts an uninterrupted 14 minutes, and attests to the painstaking rehearsals the director puts his two actors through. It's the brilliant illusion of these movies that Delpy and Hawke seem to be talking off the cuff, yet have actually been drilled in almost every word and pause. The art is to conceal the art.

The love duets of the earlier movies here give way to more ambitious ensemble scenes, principally a lunch held by their Greek hosts and friends – tellingly, each of the three other couples represent the ages. The owner of the retreat (Walter Lassally) and his partner are old, at the endpoint of life; the middle-aged couple are Jesse and Celine's near future; the young couple are the hopefulness they've left behind. All the assembled appear more content than Jesse and Celine.

The lunch is a boozy, affable affair, in which a toast is raised to the transience of life, the fact that we're all just "passing through". Time, once a wistful melody in the background, rings deeper, sadder notes for our couple, who will by the end of the day have reconsidered not just their priorities but the point of their life together. These are the chimes before midnight. The centrepiece of the film isolates the couple once more as they go off for a night at a fancy hotel while their hosts babysit the kids. Again, the film reveals its insinuating subtlety in the slow-burn details, in the fidelity to the rhythm of people talking and deflecting and arguing, at first with a casual puzzlement, then dangerously – then deal-breakingly.

Time was when they mesmerised one another with their sparring about life and art; now, it's a disillusioned audit of what they've done to one another. Jesse, a medium-successful novelist, seems the more reasonable of the pair, though we also detect his complacency and self-absorption. His repeated claims to rationality irk Celine – "You're Socrates. You should get a robe," she snipes. "You're the fucking mayor of crazy town," he tells her, somewhat less philosophically, and in terms of sanity the balance does seem in his favour: she is much more likely to fly off the handle. But has she better cause to, given the unseen and unrewarded daily grind she has put in as a mother?

This back and forth is often very droll, though it's shadowed by antagonism and regret. The wistfulness of the earlier movies has dissolved, and a bleaker, more melancholic tone predominates. It is partly to do with changed expectations. Celine is preparing for a "dream" job in environmental lobbying, but it's clear she has given up on the musical career she might have pursued: it was her guitar and singing that once bewitched Jesse. As he tells her, "If you spent as much energy as you do bitching and whining and worrying and just practised your scales, you'd be Django Reinhardt."

At times, the writing behind the rowing pokes through, and you hear sentences that are too perfectly expressed for such a volatile atmosphere. Couples aren't generally this funny when they're at each other's throat. But it's a minor quibble to set against the tremendous emotional clout of the scenes. Delpy and Hawke are so deeply invested in their characters that occasionally you forget they're acting at all.

What the film conveys so potently is the scene-by-scene, almost moment-by-moment uncertainty of what will happen to the couple next. Theirs has always seemed a passionate but fragile bond, and the way they stare at a slow-sinking sun towards the end ("still there... still there... gone") casts an ambiguous haze over what their future holds.

Will there be another movie to tell us? My own guess is that a fourth instalment (Before Noon?) might pick up the story of Jesse and Celine meeting again years after a separation, older if not much wiser. I could be wrong. But I'd be first in line to see it.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on