Love and Life at ‘Midnight’
Their love has taken them through the cobblestoned streets of Vienna under a starry night. It has led them to quaint Parisian cafes and the shores of Greece, where the Mediterranean glimmers sapphire beneath the afternoon sun. It has spanned eighteen years and produced one of the most enduring screen couples in recent memory, working its way into the annals of pop legend.
“How romantic!” you gush. But if you’ve seen any of Richard Linklater’s Before movies, you’ll see they are much more complex than such a frivolous comment might suggest. Rather than indulging in the seductive conventions of the romance genre, the films demythologize the objects of our romantic fantasy (“romantic” love included) by bringing the harshness of reality right to the doorsteps of some of the world’s dreamiest locales, none dreamier than that place in our hearts enchanted by quixotic visions of perfect love and Hollywood happy endings.
It all began with Before Sunrise, a wonderful romance in and of itself but also a slyly deceptive first film. Vienna is so ravishing, the actors so young and fetching, that we expect a love story to end all love stories. What we get instead is a dialogue between two unusually thoughtful, unusually intelligent movie characters musing about the metaphysical nature of existence and human experience. Moreover, even as they go through the motions of falling in love, they are aware of themselves every step of the way, trying to reconcile their notions of the perfect romance with the demands of reality. Jesse and Celine, the couple of interest, are less byproducts of cinema’s romantic impulse than functional human beings, blessed with and afflicted by life in all its passions and shortcomings.
It’s in this vein that the next two films unfold. The Before movies aren’t about being “in love.” The term is too broad, too arbitrary, to reflect the emotional depths plumbed by these films. Rather, they are about the evolution of love in the context of life, a journey filled with crushing adversity and no resolution. Before Sunset and Before Midnight observe as Jesse and Celine navigate their increasingly shaky romance through the trials of adulthood and eventually parenthood. Gone is the prettied visual aesthetic of Sunrise to be replaced by real-time immediacy in Sunset and lean, focused assurance in Midnight, looks that reflect the characters’ movement away from idealism into a more practical, earthbound consideration of things.
Looks play an even greater role when we consider the characters themselves. It was a masterstroke for Linklater to cast actors of approximately the same age as the characters they play, and to account for the years that pass in between the films. Watching the Before movies, we see the work of not makeup artists but the ravages of time, carrying both actor and character side by side through life’s many stages. In this way, the performances feel touchingly authentic. Physical changes actor Ethan Hawke has undergone transfer naturally to his character, who as a middle-aged father in Midnight still resembles the younger, post-collegiate Jesse we remember from Sunrise. And yet he looks worn, the way people look after enduring nearly half a century’s worth of hardship and responsibility.
One image in particular has stuck with me. While taking a walk with Celine in Midnight, Jesse has one of his shirttails tucked and the other one untucked. It’s a small detail, but it adds immensely to his disheveled appearance that painfully mirrors his disheveled life. That one shirttail speaks of the stresses of family and work; the doubts and regrets; and the physical and emotional fatigue that result from being in a state of constant worry. Celine, too, has changed. Though still a beautiful woman, she has lost some of her previous vitality, which has become stale in the presence of her frantic unease, both about her job and her relationship with Jesse. Tempers are short, anger closer at hand. It’s at this point that Midnight opens, moving beyond the rapture of Sunrise and the forlornness of Sunset to deeper, darker territory where love is battered by the trials and tragedies of the everyday. The film homes in on a family vacation in Greece, where Jesse is scheduled to meet up with a fellow writer to discuss his novels. Over the course of the day and into the evening, the bounds of love are put to the test.
Like the other two films, Midnight consists of a series of conversations. These are long, digressive, exquisitely candid discussions that are amazing in the truths they reveal. In these scenes, plot becomes irrelevant. Personality and both spoken and unspoken tensions expand to fill the space, conveyed through subtle social cues, character mannerisms, and the piquant rhythms of the script. There are four key conversations, the last of which is so viciously emotive it departs from anything we’ve seen so far in the series. It’s a stretch of brutal, biting honesty that is painful to watch. And yet, the scene is also strangely exhilarating because the dialogue so accurately encapsulates the essence of Jesse and Celine, both as individuals and as a couple, from their dry, charming humor to the sarcastic sting of their insults.
Ultimately, there’s something deeply satisfying about watching characters we are so familiar with grow visibly as people, maturing into different life roles without losing their complexity and idiosyncrasies. It’s a phenomenon seldom seen among the movies of today, or any day. This kind of attention to character marks a rare and powerful vision that seeks to capture life in both its large-scale trends and small-scale intimacies. Within life, the Before films focus on love, but also everything else that makes love matter. It’s through suffering that love’s needed the most, by suffering that love can triumph and strengthen. The ending of Midnight understands this. It’s neither unduly hopeful nor sentimental, but it approaches the future with a wry smile that says, “It’s going to be alright. You and I can do this. Together.” It’s the kind of ending that can make you romantic, both about life and the future of movies.