BEFORE MIDNIGHT A-
USA (108 mi) 2013 d: Richard Linklater Official site
While the roots of this film may be Roberto Rossellini’s divorce among the ruins film Journey to Italy (1954), it’s also beginning to resemble Michael Apted’s UP series, a British TV documentary that re-examines the lives of the same individuals every seven years, beginning at age 14 in 1970, currently up to age 56 in 2012, where American director Richard Linklater has envisioned a continuously evolving romantic theatrical piece for the same man and woman in what amounts to a modernistic two person chamber drama. Beginning as two strangers that meet on a train in Before Sunrise (1995), their delightfully charming conversation has such a naturalistic flair, and though every word is written, it has such an improvisational feel, beautifully balanced by fluid, handheld camerawork that follows them as they talk while walking through a literal travelogue of Vienna. In Before Sunset (2004), the couple returns a decade later where the camera follows them in real time walking through the streets of Paris in a succession of gorgeously choreographed tracking shots, where the mood of both films is defined by a sensed intimacy between the two characters, American novelist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Parisian born Céline (Julie Delpy), playing out at 9-year intervals, with Jesse seen at ages 23, 32, and now 41, whose continuing saga is captured in this third film of what may be just another chapter of a neverending drama. The question has always been whether this conversational style would veer into Éric Rohmer territory, where mundane issues of the middle class intelligentsia would inevitably crop up along with an undercurrent of romanticism and erotic yearning that remains deceptively hidden under the surface, where repressed surface clues, like facial reactions, might reveal more than what certain characters are loathe to admit. In fact there is a dinner sequence of this film that could just as easily have been scenes from Rohmer’s AN AUTUMN TALE (1998), a film where the audience is privy to a pastoral wedding celebration of wine and endless dinner conversation taking place in the open air vineyards of the Rhône valley. Here in the Peloponnese Peninsula of Southern Greece the conversation takes place among invited summer guests of an elderly writer named Patrick, Walter Lassally in his first acting role at age 85, who in real life is a cinematographer that won an Oscar for ZORBA THE GREEK (1964), though the house is actually set in Kardamyli and belonged to recently deceased British travel writer Patrick Leigh-Fermor.
While not so much about falling in love as staying in love, this is another film defined by conversation, becoming a comic, yet agonizing and brutally honest exploration of interpersonal conflict that treads into darker territory, where instead of dreamily wondering about what could be, this film gets into the nuts and bolts of changing moods and expectations within a marriage, as lingering doubts set in, and the romance that was once all-consuming has become a tiresome afterthought of what’s now missing, where each must contend with the reality of broken dreams. From the outset Linklater alters the rhythm through the setting, where Jesse is seen dropping off his somewhat reticent 14-year old son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) at the small local airport and sending him back to his mother in America after spending part of his summer vacation with his Dad in Greece. While driving back to Patrick’s home, we discover Jesse and Céline have been married for nearly a decade with twin 8-year old girls asleep in the backseat of the car, where Jesse is feeling the aftershock of the inevitable disadvantages of a trans-Atlantic divorce, where his son stays in America and only visits occasionally. While he appears to be a normal American kid, this is of small consequence when you’re living in France. While Céline shows some degree of concern, she’s more angry at the middle class apathy and malaise she is encountering through her job as an environmental social activist, growing more and more frustrated by continually ending up on the losing end, where she is seriously considering an opportunity to change jobs. In what feels a bit like forced conversation in the car, each continues to dwell on their own state of affairs. Actually this is more reminiscent of Maurice Pialat’s We Won't Grow Old Together (Nous ne vieillirons pa... (1972), where the claustrophobic confines of the car leave them both feeling a bit suffocated in their lives. Gone is the adrenaline rush of love in the air from his earlier films that have an almost magical feel to them, among the most romantic films ever made, expressed through the continuing motion of the budding couple engulfed by the gorgeous architectural romanticism that surrounds them, and instead we hear aggressive sarcasm in the combative tone of their voices, as this mid-life crisis they are each experiencing is a continuing thorn in their side. While they set aside their differences over dinner, the elaborate bourgeois setting with other invited guests never matches the interest or intimacy level of Jesse and Céline, though it strives for freely expressed views from various age groups on sex, technology, virtual reality, love, perception, memory, marital relationships, and a rather humorous reenactment by Céline of the kind of empty-headed bimbo that her husband and all members of the male species seem to lust after. Despite the apparent Socratic openness, the Rohmeresque quality feels class based, where this is the nouveau riche, and one wonders how much significance to place in any of their views.
Linklater has done well to balance the interest in each character, where these films literally embody the lives of fictitiously created individuals, yet with a comic frivolity carrying the weight and complexity of reality throughout, befitting of any quality human life drama. What stands out in BEFORE MIDNIGHT is the righteous indignation of Céline, who expresses herself in a feminist fury in the latter stages of the film, a side of her that she’s hinted at, but we’ve never seen, while Jesse has apparently seen more than enough already running throughout his marriage. While Delpy is nothing short of extraordinary in all three films, always smart, flirtatious, and deliciously sexy, she rises to new heights here, as her marital argument carries the weight of so many other feminist mothers who feel they carry the brunt of raising the children on their own while their potentially philandering husbands wander off and do whatever they want on so-called book tours, or any other excuse to absolve them of their family responsibilities, where after years of feeling taken advantage of, this male abandonment pattern begins to creep into newly developing cracks in their marriage. While this resentment has been building up for years, the rage begins to boil in this film, putting Jesse on the defensive throughout, as he’s literally perceived as the ugly American. Jesse doesn’t do himself any favors with some sexually demeaning comments that really sound crudely offensive, where he’s completely oblivious to the misogynist tone of his remarks which have an almost casual air of nonchalance about them. While it’s impossible not to relate to the searing emotional intensity of their argument, where what starts out as a typical lover’s quarrel escalates into years of pent-up frustration, the aggressive nature really has a hurtful element that charts out new territory, as what it comes down to, at least in Céline’s eyes, is the male need to control women, pure and simple, but they would never admit to it, and instead rely upon bullshit rationalizations wrapped up under the guise of some self-serving rationale that helps guarantee they get their way, while women simply have to go along with the master plan. This time around she is having nothing to do with it, much like the continuing frustration she’s felt from her old job, feeling she needs to embark upon a new path. Delpy is a tour-de-force of raging female disappointment at both men and the creeping emptiness of her own life, as she’s sacrificed it all for her own children, spending her life taking care of others, having little feelings or energy left for herself, where her anguish is written all over Hawke’s face, revealing his own shortcomings. What up until now is considered a Linklater romance trilogy is a major undertaking in progress, where what began as a film about falling in love is now raising relevant issues on mutual respect and sexual inequality that go well beyond class, race, religion, or marriage, and represents one of the major cultural challenges of our times. To his credit, Linklater is staging a living theater piece that has one of the hot button cultural issues at the forefront.
On a personal note - - everything troubling about the film, the suffocating opening car sequence, the insufferable, Rohmeresque dinner conversation, and the constricted, claustrophobic confines of the supposedly “perfect” hotel room at the end, all of which lack the freedom of movement and utterly delightful use of space found in the opening two films, led to a reminder afterwards (thank you Eric) that this is precisely the point of the film. Every hope and dream must face the fact that only through sacrifice and persistent effort does it ever stand a chance of becoming reality.