Friday, May 31, 2013

Before Midnight

Still Together, But More Importantly, Still Talking

Julie Delpy as Celine and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight". 
Sony Classics

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, May 31, 2013

Richard Linklater's 18-year endeavor with the "Before" trilogy culminates in "Before Midnight", an occasionally entertaining and insightful look at life, simplicity and the philosophy of being.  That sentence (and the film itself) might sound and look pretentious, but Mr. Linklater and his principals (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who co-wrote this installment with the director) have the best of intentions. 

Each of the three films, including "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset", are set nine years apart, prompting the irresistible question: why doesn't Mr. Linklater do what Michael Apted has done with the "Up" series?  That acclaimed series, most recently with "56 Up", follows the same principals in England in seven-year increments.

"Before Midnight" tracks Celine (Ms. Delpy) and Jesse (Mr. Hawke) in beautiful Greece.  They now have twin daughters.  Yet before we first see Celine the most important and best scene of Mr. Linklater's witty comedy-drama comes at the very start as Jesse talks to his son, seeing him off at the local airport.  We learn about Jesse and his relationships in the nine years since "Sunset", and Mr. Hawke wears a pained, mournful expression as the camera captures him with his son.  Regret, ambivalence and a sense of failure in these early moments define Jesse, a successful, mildly self-satisfied writer whose upper middle-class trappings project an illusion of happiness and content.

If the sublime fade-out of "Before Sunset" captivated viewers in 2004, the opening "Midnight" scene with Jesse and its transition are an illuminating and sobering shift to an altogether different reality.  It feels as if the entirety of what follows either weighs on or occurs in Jesse's mind, or, more accurately, the key scene with his son spurs previously unexplored feelings in Jesse that percolate throughout "Before Midnight".  (The film takes full advantage of its picturesque surroundings, thanks to the rich cinematography of Christos Voudouris.)

By contrast Celine appears content as an environmentalist and a mother but doubts the strength of her relationship with Jesse.  The issue of Jesse's son and his mother provides great and understandable insecurity for Celine, which is the underlying basis of tension between Celine and Jesse.  Overall, there's little doubt that in "Before Midnight" the self-conscious lead couple appear more so now that they are parents.  Still, Mr. Linklater's film remains spontaneous, sunny and fresh in places amidst fluidity and stagnation.

Mr. Hawke and Ms. Delpy's comfort level together on screen show that they are nothing if not themselves, even if some of their interactions are border-line farcical.  As you listen to Celine and Jesse converse you know both of them are right, both of them are wrong, occasionally irrational and always genuinely in love.  Celine and Jesse are comfortable enough together to do all the things some couples cannot do where communication is concerned.

Celine's bizarre comment about rape may bring discomfort in men and women alike, and for me it also offered a "where the hell did that line come from?" reaction.  As spoken by the proud, talented and irrepressible Ms. Delpy the line clearly illustrates the neuroses Celine has about aging.  It's an eye-opening line; painful -- some may say funny -- but it reveals the incisive, engaging personality of Ms. Delpy, who in some conversations (i.e., Sundance 2012) has critiqued the U.S. for being too uptight and nervous.

"Before Midnight" is best described as an action film for talkers.  Or, better yet, a talking action film.  (The muscular, testosterone fueled "Fast & Furious 6" would have crumbled under the weight of these talky, even preachy views of existentialism.)  Each of the film's seven or eight scenes runs for about 10-15 minutes and contains the observations and introspections of a garrulous group of smiling Grecians, Americans and French.  Those who don't like reading subtitles or listening to people talk for 90 minutes with little interruption should spare themselves this experience, and "Before Midnight" may even test the patience of some art-house cineastes.

One scene features a widow making a comment that is particularly touching but underlines the overtures of pretention that permeate "Before Midnight".  The moment however, is a resonant and valuable one, in which simplicity overrides the (sometimes exhausting and tedious) energy of exchanges.  The wise hands of time and experience in the form of the widow blankets, if not makes irrelevant the younger more effervescent participants.  The contrast of older and younger friends and relatives surrounding Celine and Jesse at dinner give "Before Midnight" its fully dimensional view of the 18-year couple, representing a perspective of where they've evolved from, where they presently are and where they are likely headed. 

These relational frameworks are some of the best attributes of Mr. Linklater's film, as are the rare moments in "Before Midnight" where silences come.  These specific episodes carry the greatest truth: that human beings need to have more time and space to be comfortable with themselves, their surroundings and their fates.  In a short-attention span iPhone world, "Before Midnight" is a premium luxury, a reminder that taking time out to listen, contemplate, debate, engage, argue and laugh is better done in person with humans -- those you love, disagree with or do not know. 

Like "Disconnect", "Before Midnight" has plenty to say, and the weight of what is said, as well as some of the grittier, uglier truths about human interactions and relationships, are no less biting or immediate.  Jesse and Celine are simply working through their anxieties, fears, insecurities, regrets, loves and desires.  They aren't married but are refreshingly candid with each other.  "Before Midnight" could be called a therapy session, with Celine and Jesse as the best kind of therapy for each other.  They and the rest of the cast laugh, as do we, and have some fun in these fleeting moments of our lives.  At least Celine and Jesse take stock of what they have and don't have, and while some of their arguments may appear trivial they are always sincere. 

Much of the dialogue in "Before Midnight" is much more natural when spoken by the unknown -- to some Americans at least -- actors during a dinner scene, for instance, than when uttered by Ms. Delpy and Mr. Hawke, who at times look too mannered.  Even so, their banter forms the heart of what is a good, if not great film, a satisfying if not scintillating effort.

Also with: Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior.

"Before Midnight" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content/nudity, violence and for language.  The film's running time is one hour and thirty-seven minutes.   

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