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.