Few movies are so good that they make you feel enriched as a person as you leave the theater. Few movies cause you to smile, and genuinely, heartily laugh as you watch the characters in action, making you feel truly at one with the people up on screen. There are few movies that bridge the gap between actor and audience so well that when your attention is drawn away from the movie for just a second, you are startled by how invested you’ve become in what is merely a projection of light on a white screen. Yet they do exist. Before Midnight is one of them.
Set in the south of Greece in the modern day, Celine and Jesse – an unwed, early-middle-aged couple traveling with their son and twin daughters – are spending their summer vacation at the villa of an old writer, who has invited them to join his season-long party of guests, on behalf of Jesse’s own work as a novelist. On the last day of their vacation – which is the day in which we join them – Jesse says goodbye to the son, Hank, who is flying back to Chicago to rejoin his mother, Jesse’s ex-wife.
As he says goodbye to his very independent boy, Jesse is suddenly taken over by a feeling of guilt, and loss. He wonders if his choice to live in Europe with his newer partner and daughters has required that he miss out on a meaningful relationship with his son. He fears that as Hank moves further along into adolescence, the possibility of forming that bond will slip away, and they will become strangers.
This newfound concern sits on Jesse’s head for the remainder of the day, and when he proposes the idea to Celine that they move to Chicago to be closer to his son, he opens up the avenue for a would-be-marital conflict which forces the couple out of their suspended state of summer bliss, if only later on in the evening, when the accumulated hours and worn patience of a busy day come to grips with longstanding concerns and prejudices which have riddled their relationship for years.
As you can guess, this a very personal, intimate, and character-driven piece of storytelling; the action is limited to the course of one day, in a rather remote, rustic setting, with a small cast that could not accede twelve in number. The lead characters, Celine and Jesse, are played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with director Richard Linklater. Although there are other people present, the film is mostly an examination of these two characters, a portrait of a relationship which has all the more meaning if one is familiar with the two prior films in this unofficial trilogy.
Before Sunrise, released in 1995, told the story of how Celine and Jesse met – as young adults, on a train ride from Budapest – and Before Sunset (2004) explored their second encounter nine years later, after a book written by Jesse drew the attention of his would-be lover – their subsequent meeting apparently leaving viewers with the question of whether or not the two would ever make something of their undeniable love for one another. This latest entry – also made after a gap of nine years – answers that question, as we find the couple very much together and in love, yet contemplating the challenges in a relationship which only marriage – or an approximate marriage – can bring. And although I’ve seen neither of these two earlier movies, they are not prerequisites: you can come into Before Midnight as a complete stranger and still have a rich and gratifying experience.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are, in a word, extraordinary. The level of commitment displayed in both actors to become so indistinguishable from their characters is breathtaking. The professionalism involved in learning their lines is truly an inspiration; most scenes in the film consist of single-take shots which can last for at least ten minutes, requiring the actors to walk and talk convincingly without interim – a challenge that they meet with conviction and skill, making for two of the most impressive performances I have seen this year.
Aside from being impressive, however, they are also radiant and extremely enjoyable to watch. Julie Delpy is a mesmerizing creature and a wonderful actress, making Celine so beautiful and overwhelmingly charming an individual that you cannot take your eyes away from her for a second. Ethan Hawke is also extremely likeable, and very entertaining with his easy impressionability and open demeanor. The naturalism of this pair is what strikes a chord most directly with its audience, and it is the generosity they display towards one another and to the camera that draws us in, and carries us away in the believability of their conversation.
This is a movie that could have been very unlikeable – it would have been so easy to have its tone shift into something that is edgy or self-referential. But it never does go down that path; it sticks to its intent as a revealing, honest character study, and builds a sense of drama, comedy, and romance upon its very limited resources, generating a rich sense of identification rather than an airy sense of distance.
What I find most beautiful about this movie, however – and it is a very beautiful movie – is the wisdom that is displayed by its authors regarding the exact emotional mapping of a single day. What I mean by this is, in the way that problems seem incidental and manageable in the morning; that we forget those problems as the day wears on; and then in the evening, when we’ve lost our patience and feel ready for sleep, they suddenly manifest themselves, and issues that earlier on looked so small suddenly assume massive proportions.
That is exactly what happens here, as Celine and Jesse eventually retire to their hotel room, with small disturbances in their aura of happiness setting them off into a spiral of accusations and emotional turbulence. Because of this, through all the fighting that occurs in the last third of the movie – and the fight is long, maybe approaching twenty minutes in length – one gets the sense that even though hurtful things are being said, the problems and preoccupations they are touching upon don’t really matter that much in the long-run – that after a good night’s sleep, everything will be back to normal, and maybe even a little better, with all of these undisclosed insecurities suddenly brought to light, and then slept on. Despite what Celine says to Jesse before she finally storms out, she does still love him, and that is the beauty of this situation – that the bond which exists between them will always bring them back together, that the unity of two souls can never be undone even by the nastiest of expressions. Blood sugar is what runs low here, not love.
I can say with certainty that this is one of the best films so far this decade. Looking over some of the more notable titles to be released after 2009, I find it hard to identify another film as articulate, enjoyable, and meaningful as this one. There is a profound resonance that stays with you after the movie ends, and you feel as though you want to see more of these characters – that if you could, you could step through that gap between spectator and spectacle, and come to know Jesse and Celine yourself. I give much credit to Mr. Linklater, Mr. Hawke, and Ms. Delpy for being able to achieve that remarkable feat. If you want to know the definition of movie magic, this is it.