Nine years ago Richard Linklater left Jesse and Celine listening to Nina Simone in Paris at the end of Before Sunset, in what surely is one of the most perfect endings to a movie in cinema history.
Jesse had a decision to make. Should he return home to his wife and son, or should he rekindle his romance with the one who got away? To even discuss the premise of Before Midnight may prove too much detail for some, and there’s a definite benefit to going into this third entry blind. There’s a moment a few minutes into the film that sheds light on how the past nine years have panned out for the pair that makes the heart pang. Anyone who wants to avoid knowing whether that’s a product of happiness or tragedy should click away now, but know that, in a lovely irony, it’s another perfect moment in a film and now trilogy that finds beauty in life and love’s imperfections.
So it turns out Jesse did miss that plane, and nine years later the pair are still together and parents to two angelic, blonde twin girls. They live together in Paris, but they’re coming to the end of a summer in Greece that they’ve also spent with Jesse’s son Hank from his first marriage, and we first meet Jesse again at the airport as Hank departs for Chicago. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy slip effortlessly back into their characters, and their near decade-long relationship together immediately convinces. Fittingly we’re revisiting the couple at a crossroads. Jesse’s concerned that Hank’s suffering without his father in his life, and floats the idea with Celine of moving back Stateside. Celine, meanwhile, is at a crossroads in her career, and most certainly doesn’t want to move to the U.S. and closer to Jesse’s ex-wife who hates her.
Given the structure of the previous two films, it’s entirely possible that the journey home from the airport could see the pair discussing these issues and assessing where they are in their lives, and the entire film comprising of that discussion. Wisely, Linklater only briefly raises those issues during the drive home, and then breaks the pre-established format by separating the pair for a short while as they interact with three other couples they’re staying with. It’s a nice change of pace, and it allows us a short amount of time to consider Jesse and Celine’s relationship in the context of others. It’s also appropriate given the nature of the story they’re telling this time around. They’re no longer swept up by romance and unable to tear themselves away from one another. They’re not trying desperately to recapture a lost moment. They’re living their lives as they do every day, and romance has given way to love and frustration.
And when the traditional extended duologues eventually begin, it’s clear that all is not well in their Greek paradise. At the ending of Before Sunset we were left wondering whether the pair might get together. Now we’re left asking whether they can stay together, and crucially they’re asking themselves that very question too. It makes for a film that at times is extremely uncomfortable to watch, but even when they’re at each others’ throats the pair exchange some wonderful dialogue – only this time it has an acerbic edge. They aim to wound, but do so with a wit and intelligence that keeps things entertaining, even as one of cinema’s most adored couples threatens to implode before the night is out.
There were much easier films for Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to make in this 9-year interval, but nothing that would have felt quite so authentic. Jesse and Celine are two flawed individuals who have fallen in love and ended up together, but in doing so may have had a detrimental impact on many aspects of each other’s lives. Their love is imperfect, but the storytelling is anything but. As a portrait of where this couple may find themselves at this stage in their lives it may just be perfect, and who could say no to the prospect of revisiting them another nine years down the line.