Richard Linklater and crew wander not-so-happily into ever after
American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) was 23 years old back in 1994, when he crossed paths with the Parisian Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train in Europe. He was young and cocky and struck up a conversation with her that led to the two of them departing the train at the next station and wandering around for a night, doing everything they can to hold off the sunrise. They talked, as only two young would-be lovers would, and made plans to meet up, one year later. It was all so romantic, so destined to be, right?
Wrong. Approximately nine years later, Jesse has written a book about that night, fictionalizing certain elements, heightening others, while somehow remaining faithful to his version of the truth of what happened that night. He’s on an abbreviated European book tour, reading and re-living that night, day after day, when suddenly, there she is … Celine. They pick up right where they left off, sort of. They walk and talk again, but this time, they are catching up, finding out what happened all those years ago. Did he … did she show up for the meeting? Why? Why not?
The attraction, which was there in the beginning, remains, but it has matured some, seasoned with age and experience. Celine takes him back to her place, sings for him, but he’s got a plane to catch before the sun goes down, so that he can head back to the States and the wife and son waiting for him.
Flash forward to the present – almost another ten years – and we drop in on Jesse at the airport with his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who has spent a few weeks in Greece with his father and Celine – and his twin half-sisters. Hank is headed back to his mother in the States. He’s starting high school and Jesse, at every turn in the conversation, feels guilty. It is difficult to realize that he is missing key moments in his son’s life.
And so, when Jesse kisses the boy, walks out of the terminal, settles in for a long drive with Celine and the girls in tow, begins yet another long discussion between our long-winded lovers. Jobs, family, guilt, sex, aging and home. All the stuff of life sneaks its way into the mix as they head back to their Greek retreat, but this time others have been added into the equation.
Director Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset”), co-scripting again with Delpy and Hawke, populates the frames this time with other couples and gives voice to a few more perspectives on love and life, to counter the two sides we’ve always had from Jesse and Celine. For some of us watching this time, we may see and hear ourselves in those other voices. As a man who married later in life and became a stepparent, I sure did. Another nine years means the pair have even more history, shared this time, but the additional characters speaks to layers of complexity that has been missing before.
That shared time though also means that when we watch Jesse and Celine as their conversation rushes headlong towards passionate argument, we see the glint of the sharp edges of their emotional knives and feel the blades as they slice deep into those vital and tender parts. It is uncomfortable, maybe moreso because we know these two so well and actually have grown to like them.
“Before Midnight” reminds me in some ways of Michael Apted’s “Up” series, which has documented the lives of the same group of British adults every seven years. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have traced the evolution of these characters so thoroughly and honestly that it is difficult to imagine that we won’t see them again, nine years from now. But will they still be riding along together or on separate tracks?
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com