IN SELECTED CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 109 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1995, American student Jesse and French student met on a train and spent a day and night in Venice. Nine years later, they reunite when Jesse is in Paris promoting a book he wrote about their time in Venice. Now, the two are a couple with two twin girls. Jesse is struggling to maintain his relationship with his teenage son, Hank, who lives in Chicago with Jesse’s ex-wife. He has found success as a novelist, but Celine is at a career crossroads, considering a job in government. At the end of a six week holiday in Greece, they explore the option of moving from France to America, and cracks in the relationship start to come to the fore….
This is the third film of what is now a trilogy, and you can read my reviews of the first two films here:
So it’s been nine years since Jesse said he was going to miss that plane, and once again, fans of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were divided in their opinions on a third movie. I was actually very keen on one. I had mixed feelings when Before Sunset was announced because, however much I wanted to know whether Jesse and Celine ever met up after their special day and night in Vienna, I had formed my own ideas in my head as to what happened, and Before Sunrise was such a unique film, a film that was not only incredibly sweet but proved to this lover of visuals that constant dialogue can sometimes be a good thing, that it would be almost impossible to recapture its magic. Well, Before Sunset turned out to be very good too, so I looked forward much more to a third film and had total faith in it.
Well, I should have titled this review “be careful what you wish for“. Before Midnight has had superb reviews, some hailing it as the best of the three films, and seems to have generally pleased the fans, though not as much as Before Sunset. I count myself as a huge fan of the first two films, but not long into Before Midnight elements didn’t feel quite right to me, and the film only had the magic of the first two sporadically, while by the end I wasn’t really enjoying it at all. In fact, I would go as far as to say it has ruined the two main characters, especially one of them, and partially ruined the first two films. This has been called the ‘dark’ one, and there is no doubt that, because Jesse and Celine are now in their 40’s, it should indeed have more weight, depth, maturity and pessimism than the episodes that came before it. Along the way though, director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also scripted, have decided to write a film that is so different in attitude from the first two, that it’s really jarring. They seem to have forgotten that the first two weren’t so much realistic as realistic handlings of idealistic situations, whimsical what-ifs. And, in doing this, they’ve ruined the characters of two screen characters I really liked.
At first things really do seem as before. After Jesse drops his son at the airport in scenes that are very well written, subtle and seem ‘real’, we get into Jesse and Celine mode again as they are driving around and chat chat chat. Now yesterday I would have said that I could listen to Jesse and Celine talk all day, and Hawke and Delpy have the same chemistry as before, but Before Midnight also sees fit to plonk the couple with some friends for a while. The ensuring dinner table chat is sometimes interesting, but often seems very forced, as if most of it is being said just to provide context for the relationship of Jesse and Celine. And, after a while, even the scenes just with the two start to lose their lustre. The dialogue sometimes lacks the flow of before, and yet the couple still talk in that slightly pretentious manner of people in their 20’s [and I mean this as no offence, I may have been the same in my 20’s]. When Celine maks an obscene gesture in a chapel, I started to realise how important co-writer Kim Krizan was to the success of the first two, and whose absence is surely felt here. The scene is pointless, lazy, and makes Celine out to be crass and not very much the lovely, cultured young woman of before.
In fact, it’s what the film does with the character of Celine that grates more than anything else. I can accept, for instance, that Jesse and Celine are not married. The romantic in me would have preferred it, and I think that it is something Jesse and Celine would have done, but at the end of the day it’s not a huge issue. However Celine, here one of those dreadful people who never seem happy about anything, is really dislikeable; I couldn’t believe some of the things that were coming out of her mouth near the end, but then she’s constantly being awkward and annoying: notice how she can’t seem to wait to publically belittle Jesse at the dinner table. The film climaxes in a huge row, and it’s well staged and acted, and actually very exciting in a strange way, but it’s Celine who is saying the majority of the bad things. I wrote at the end of my reviews of the first two films that I kind of fell in love with her in each one. As this film was ending, I couldn’t stand the selfish, unpleasant cow, even if she spends most of one scene topless [and Delpy still looks stunning]. Then again, I didn’t like Jesse much by then either. For most of the time he just seems to put up with her crap, but actually he is revealed to be a scumbag. Yes, everyone has their bad points, and Linklater and co. are trying to be more realistic, but there is also some nasty cynicism at work here, as if they are saying: “ You think you like these people? Well think again”. As I write this, I hate what they have done with this couple, and hate them for doing it.
All this makes it sound like I think Before Midnight is awful, but it isn’t. I find myself in the strange position of seriously disliking a film, but admitting it is still quite good. Many of my quibbles are more personal than anything else. In fact, I think it works better as a stand-alone film ; it’s certainly one you could watch without having seen the first two, as it fills in bits of the background in several scenes. Its themes are mature and pertinent. Most of us will probably question our lives, and our relationships, before it could be too late. However, the film remains somewhat dishonest, is mean-spirited, and has some questionable creative decisions. There is a music score in this film, and it’s rather nice music, mostly in waltz time, as if to remind one of Celine’s song at the end of the second movie. It’s often played over shots of Greek scenery or children playing and creating a very pleasant mood. However, it also dispels much of the attempted realism in a film which tries, or rather thinks, it is the most true-to-life of the three films.
Linklater’s direction is as smooth as ever, and Hawke and Delpy still inhabit these roles, while all the other performances are good; the dinner table scene is full of great little bits and pieces of acting from what are more-or-less unknowns. There is much that is praise-worthy in Before Midnight, but as it finished on the usual [for the series] cliffhanger, I found myself alternating between feeling very sorry for one character and not caring much at all. There’s no doubt about it: I ended up wishing it hadn’t been made. Sometimes one can get too close to characters in films, and this is what has happened here. It’s my loss. I will continue to watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but I’ll leave Jesse sitting in Celine’s apartment as she dances to Nina Simone, and try to forget they ever made a third film. Third film? What third film?