return trip to the Peloponnesian vistas of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight showed no diminished
traits. It was as equally enriching to see Celine and Jesse take in the Greek
sights on the small screen as it was on the big one. The transition was
actually beneficial, as the intimacy between stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
feels magnified when shrunk down to my home theater screen. And while the
picturesque images of Celine and Jesse roaming the Greek countryside maintains
the palpable sense of beauty and nostalgic veneer that have made Before Sunrise and Before Sunset so intimate, the tonal shift feels bolder on this
second viewing. The risk here, taken by Linklater and his writing partners
Delpy and Hawke, should not be understated. What was once discovery (Sunrise) and re-discovery (Sunset) has now become discovered. And
the ramification of this discovery provides Linklater et al. with one of the
year’s great cinematic achievements.
The critical question to ask and one worth addressing in relation to Before Midnight’s modest (i.e. bad) box office intake is: How do you want to remember this couple? As the young lovers who promise to stay in touch after saying goodbye in Before Sunrise? Or the final image of Before Sunset, where Celine sings and Jesse contemplates taking his flight back home? I would hardly blame anyone for holding onto any of these images. Their poignancy is marked by a true sense of unknowing, where the audience’s imagination latches onto Linklater’s final threads of unfinished thoughts. And with Linklater’s nine-year lapses in time, Before Sunset and Before Sunrise function as time capsules on the budding nature of love. I’m reminded of Vincent Gallo’s line delivery in Buffalo ’66, where he hopes to capture a photo of himself and Christina Ricci that’s “spanning time”. Linklater achieves this sense of spanning time by filming and releasing these picture nine years apart. Beyond the obvious physical transformation of its two characters, there’s Linklater’s own development as a writer and director. Celine and Jesse have shown dramatic changes in characterization since Before Sunrise - just like anyone else.
Adulthood complexities make Before Midnight especially poignant, if not as romantic as Linklater’s previous two films. Chicago Reader’s J.R. Jones described this third going of Jesse and Celine as something of a “cold shower” and this description aptly covers the inevitable nature of romantic relationships. Now in their 40s, Jesse and Celine contend with parenthood and the obstacles of Jesse’s previous marriage. The two would squabble in previous films, but it was marked by passionate intensity. That same intensity is there, but it somehow lacks the same passion. “I know you better than anyone else” says Jesse as he and Celine walk to a hotel. They do know each other’s limits and as such they’re fully capable of surveying the emotional minefield of their ensuing argument.
It’s a cruel joke to consider that the first time we actually see Celine and Jesse about to have sex is also the site of their first full-fledged argument. Their dispute seems as if it’s in a long line of similar-minded fights. Though consider what’s highlighted in all these films: blossoming love in the first, rekindled romance in the second. There’s real gravity to the argument had here and the weightiness of it succeeds largely on the basis that Linklater has two other films to draw upon. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Celine and Jesse are a doomed romance, though Linklater certainly toys with notion. No, if the final scene in Before Midnight is any indication, it’s that the trials and tribulations of a relationship can bring out the very best and the very worst in people. We see both sides in Before Midnight.
But it may not be the way we want to remember Jesse and Celine. Their youthful vigor in Linklater’s 1995 film slowly evaporates in each subsequent film. We may want to hold onto that image of love had and love lost. Or perhaps it’s the middle ground where Jesse’s decision to stay with Celine is left in question. Would he catch his flight? Before Midnight may answer questions we don’t want answered; it may also be why the film is considered a commercial failure. We put a lot of stock in our media images and for the small collective that have embraced the Before films, the startling visage of Celine and Jesse at odds end may have compromised the sugary images of romantic splendor that we’re used to. But the looming shadow of Eros towers over the Peloponnesian walkways - Celine and Jesse will find their way.