Mature, intimate, humorous, intelligent, and melancholy, Before Midnight is an homage to imperfection and how difficult it can be to make a relationship work. Riddled with dialogue both realistic and rawly honest, in the vein of Blue Valentine and Certified Copy, writer-director Richard Linklater pulls off the ambitious task of making Midnight as good as its predecessors and advancing the characters in believable ways. As before, Linklater follows them in long, static takes as they indulge in extended debates and deliberations. It is a pinnacle of non-obtrusive filmmaking.
Armed with the script, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy deliver impeccably, with razor-sharp wit and artistic sensitivity swirling through everything they say. Their exquisite chemistry, developed over 18 years and two previous collaborations, is naturalistic and simultaneously fraying at the seams. Their devastating later scenes of confrontation are courageous in their audacity and vulnerability, pushing the viewer to the forefront of a couple drowning and gasping for air.
Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were courtship dramas and wildly romantic, grounded in and fueled by seduction. The question was whether they would get together. In the entirely different, almost anti-romantic Midnight, the question is whether they will stay together. The same dramatic strategy is no longer possible, and the artistic fusion of Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy was forced to adapt to the new challenges. If the first two films belong with the greatest romances of all time, the new film is richer, riskier, and more bleakly perceptive about what it takes for love to endure – or not – over the long haul.
The most extraordinary success, if the achievements above were not sufficient, is how the films work in context and yet are potent portraits in isolation. Midnight completes an “hourglass” structure on multiple levels, including the fact that the first and third are expansive in their reach while the second remains focused on Jesse and Celine. These are snapshots of remarkably interesting people at such different stages of their lives that they work separately or in tandem.
The only possible criticism is the slight reduction of Delpy’s Celine to a rather unsympathetic character. The film takes Jesse’s point of view more aggressively than Sunrise or Sunset, and it sways the audience in one direction rather than letting them decide for themselves.
But this cannot be said to take away from a film with dazzling surprises and profound insights around every corner. While romance isn’t guaranteed in Midnight, a grander appreciation of the complexities and compromises of true love more than makes up for it. The clock tolls for truth, and the heart is all the stronger for it. The Before trilogy now comprises one of the most unique and effective love stories ever told.