Before Midnight

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Review by © Jane Freebury

In Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the first two films of what has become an exquisite trilogy, time was of the essence. Money too. In the first brief encounter between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Vienna, it kept them on the streets, and talking, always talking. Second time around in Paris, after the designated nine-year interlude, things ended much less ambiguously, with the romantic couple alone in her apartment and the evening ahead.

Before Midnight, the third of the Before series starts as they near the end of a six week holiday together in a writers’ retreat in the southern Peloponnese under the laser light of the Mediterranean summer sun. There is still the sense of some sort of deadline, but on this occasion the couple have been together since last we met.

There is an imminent departure, but it’s Jesse’s 14-year-old son, who is leaving, flying home to his mum in Chicago. Dad (Hawke) and he are saying their goodbyes at the Kalamata airport, in a sequence that perfectly captures the dynamic of caring parent trying to assuage guilt in last-minute interaction with a child who is preoccupied with other matters anyway. Jesse walks out of the airport and towards the four-wheel drive where his partner awaits him, with a pair of beautiful blonde children asleep on the back seat. The last nine years since Before Sunset are revealed in single shot and it packs a wallop.

The drama proceeds to unfold on the front seat on the drive back to the retreat, with the camera sitting on the bonnet capturing it in the first of many long takes. With an absence of cuts, director Richard Linklater likes to immerse his audiences in his characters and their problems—without prioritising either character’s point-of-view—and the reality of the dramatic moment. Welcome to the talkfest that is the Before trilogy.

All the talk is however quite wonderful and one of those rare films where the acting brings to life the brilliant emotional honesty of the script as the conversation, delivered every which way, with love, humour or snarky payback, cuts through. The latest collaboration between Linklater and his two lead actors, it is a mirror for the unruly bundle of intimate needs and professional ambition, emotional dilemmas, compromises and triumphs of contemporary life.

Delpy’s beauty has had a kind of iconic status on screen since her appearances in Krysztof Kieslowski’s own trilogy Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Rouge and Blanc. The less said of Hawke’s scruffy appearance the better, but he is perfect for his role too. The two of them have given so generously of themselves in this rare treat of a film that just wants to explore, gently but incisively, how we really tick.

In a capsule: An exquisite study of mature romance, exploring the Before Sunset relationship many years on to discover what has changed and what remains the same.

5 stars