In the timeless landscape of the Messinia region of Greece, Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), drive and walk and talk (and talk) about their lives and love for each other and how things change.
Director Richard Linklater’s wonderful “Before Midnight” (the third film in the series that began with “Before Sunrise”), rejoins Celine and Jesse nine years after he–it’s now obvious–missed his plane home from Paris in “Before Sunset.” And what’s also obvious is that Jesse and Celine are a couple with seven-year-old twin daughters.
Brought up to speed with pitch-perfect, often very funny dialog (a hallmark of the “Before” films), we learn that Jesse is now a successful novelist at work on his fourth book and Celine, his somewhat reluctant muse, is an environmentalist on the verge of a quantum leap in her career.
The family is nearing the end of an idyllic vacation (which also included Jesse’s son from his first marriage, Hank, who has just flown back to Chicago) at a writer’s retreat, the bucolic home of their host, an older expat writer, Patrick.
At a leisurely lunch in one of the villa’s “outdoor rooms”–the proceedings are magazine-spread worthy–with Patrick and his Greek friends who have embraced the family, Celine, feeling tension with with Jesse, tries, without success, to decline a gift from Stefanos and Ariadne, a night for just the two of them at a luxurious hotel on the Ionian Sea (with a bottle of wine and a couples’ massage), babysitting provided at Patrick’s place. (An aside: Ariadne is played by one of the film’s co-producers, director Athina Rachel Tsangari, whose perceptive film, “Attenberg,” released in New York in 2012, is a must-see.)
Jesse and Celine’s relationship in the two earlier films–one night on a train and in Vienna (in their 20s), one day in Paris (in their 30s)–was all potential, and as such, purely and highly romantic. In “Before Midnight,” they’ve been together for nine years and while their love has deepened, it has also changed, worked on by the forces of time and everyday life and it’s not without fissures, opened by unresolved grievances.
Sparring mixes with light-hearted conversation on the walk through a glorious landscape to the hotel but metamorphoses into a conflagration, sparked, as they settle into the room, by a small misunderstanding, fueled by a relationship’s worth of misunderstandings, differences and fears. The dialog is so spot on, it’s squirm-inducing.
Celine, as she furiously exits the room says, “It’s simple. I don’t think I love you anymore.” Jesse follows her outside to a waterside table and with his characteristic charm, spins a story of a time traveler returned from visiting with Celine’s octogenarian self. Unsure if they’ll reconcile he says, “If you want true love, this is it.”
I don’t know if the “Before” films will continue on, like a mini, fictional “7 Up,” and if we’re scheduled to check in again with Jesse and Celine in nine or so years, but the series (and I choose not to say trilogy, leaving things open-ended) outs me as a romantic and I know they’ll still be together, worrying about where the twins will attend college.
The first time I photographed Richard Linklater (using shutter drag–colloquially, flash and blur), it was in my studio and his now seminal independent feature, “Slacker,” was about to be released. He was smart, fun to meet and shoot, and we talked about films and photography. After I finished shooting, he looked at my photography book collection (even then I had shelves of interesting volumes), sitting on the small black pleather sofa (a rough copy of an Arne Jacobsen) that I had bought at a stoop sale on Renwick St. and awkwardly carried home. Time passed. My assistant said, “I think he likes you.” I replied, “Yes, well enough–but not like that. You’ll understand when you see ‘Slacker.’ ” Eventually someone from Sony Classics called looking for Richard and asked me to send him back uptown to their offices.
Fifteen years later, I shot Richard again, in a hotel, for an article in MovieMaker. He remembered the shoot at my studio, which surprised me–he’d been photographed innumerable times since. But more amazing, he remembered all the books he’d paged through and that when he had asked who was the last person I’d shot before him, I had answered Gerard Depardieu. I too have a good memory but I was awed by his ability and said, “You’re a bad person to have a disagreement with–you’ll remember every prior event and conversation and even if you didn’t, you could make it up and anyone familiar with your superhero total recall would believe you.”