15 June 2013

As After Sunset Fadeth in the West

"When was the last time we just wandered around bullshitting?" asks Jesse (Ethan Hawke) about halfway through Richard Linklater's new movie, Before Midnight. Well, I'd say about nine years ago. In other words, the last time we caught up with Jesse and Céline (Julie Delpy) the star-crossed lovers — or are they? — in Linklater's Before... trilogy. Before Sunset and its predecessor, Before Sunrise, are among my all-time favourite films, so there was a lot of pressure on part trois. Fortunately, I loved it. It was just the way catching up with old friends should be: moving, enchanting, and a real laugh riot. So much so that when the screen went black at the end, I couldn't believe it was over. It was a good five seconds before I realised we had indeed reached the 1h50 mark.

If you haven't seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, it's definitely worth checking them out first — it will make for a much more rewarding viewing of Before Midnight. I actually saw the second film first, when it came out at the cinema, and then caught up with part one on DVD. Perhaps that put a different spin on the whole series. In any case, in Before Sunrise, 20-something Jesse has broken up with his girlfriend and has been travelling around Europe when, on his last night before flying back to the States, he meets Céline and they impulsively decide to get off the train together in Vienna. He can't afford a hotel so they spend the whole night walking around the city, wandering around bullshitting. Before Sunset is set nine years later, when Jesse, now a successful writer, has come to Paris to promote his book, which is also partly based on his romance with Céline. Céline shows up to Jesse's reading at Shakespeare & Co, and then — surprise, surprise — they only have an hour to wander around bullshitting before he has to leave to catch his flight. They are both in other relationships, but neither is particularly happy, and that connection between them is still there.

Jump forward another nine years, and Jesse is at a Greek airport with his now-teenage son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) back to his now-ex-wife in Chicago. Hank has spent the summer with his dad, Céline and his two twin step-sisters (Charlotte and Jennifer Prior) at the idyllic retreat of Patrick (Walter Lassally), a writer friend of Jesse's, but it's time to return to school. Jesse and Céline drive back to the house while the twins sleep in the back. They bullshit, the bicker, they laugh. They are happy. Except things aren't quite perfect. Céline is thinking of taking a new job with her former boss, whom Jesse dislikes, and Jesse worries that he is missing out on some prime father-son years with Hank, and wonders if they should move from Paris to Chicago.

Back at the house, the womenfolk make dinner, while the men talk about life and writing. Specifically, Jesse's writing: his two books, This Time (which he was promoting in Before Sunset) and That Time, as well as some of the ideas he has for the next one, and the weird and wonderful characters who might populate it. Over a long meal, the three generations of friends and family staying with Patrick talk about love, life and sex. The youngest couple, who are probably in their late teens, are geographically separated, but it's OK because they can fall asleep together via Skype. Of course, if Jesse and Céline had mobile phones and access to Skype in Before Sunrise, the whole trajectory of their love story could have been altered dramatically. Perhaps.

As it's Jesse and Céline's last night in Greece, two of their friends have bought them a night in a fancy hotel in town, while they babysit the twins. It's a lovely walk, with stunning views of the sea and various churches and ruins. And this is when Jesse reflects on how little wandering around bullshitting they get to do these days. For Jesse and Céline, the romance was never the problem; it was everything else. Life inevitably always gets in the way. As they banter back and forth, the conversation sometimes takes darker turns. When Céline challenges Jesse to name women who achieved their life's work at a young age, he suggests Joan of Arc. "No one wants to be her," Céline scoffs. "She was burned at the stake and she died a virgin."

When they reach their hotel room, it looks as though everything is going to be all right. They begin to rediscover some lost intimacy, despite Céline's complaints about the lack of spontaneity of the situation, and the begin to rediscover what they love about each other. But lingering in the background is the situation with Hank and Jesse's ex. Jesse wants to move to Chicago, but Céline doesn't want to give up the chance of her "dream job," their life in Paris and, more importantly, the symbolism of her independence, when the ex would never even let them see Hank more than once every other weekend, per the terms of their custody agreement. As they fight, things go a little Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The script is very sharp and funny, so we laugh, but then wonder if we shouldn't really be crying. Céline storms out of the room several times — once for good. "We aren't characters in one of your stories," she snaps, as he tries to make things better.

Amid all of the acrimony and the years of unspoken truths, there is also a lot of sweetness in Before Midnight. It feels a lot grittier and a lot more real than both of its predecessors, which had an other-worldly, fairy-tale-like quality to them. It's clear, though, that the depth of their feelings for each other go way beyond what happened on a magical night in Vienna and an exquisite afternoon in Paris. This is indeed 40. Well, technically 41.

The chemistry between Hawke and Delpy in Before Midnight is as perfect as ever. As in Before Sunset, the two actors co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater, and it is wonderfully written. My only concern was the pacing: the set-up took so long that by the time the ending rolled around, I wanted more time alone with Jesse and Céline. The additional characters in the house made for a richer tapestry, but the deep musings about the nature of love and the male-female divide felt a little pretentious. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the film and thought it was a fitting ending to a beautiful, thoughtful trilogy. I'll just have to go and rewatch the first films now, and hope that hindsight doesn't diminish them. I don't think it will.

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