Thursday, June 13, 2013

Before Midnight

By Richard Linklater

                All who have lived serious romances and fought to preserve their meaningful joys will find a knowing and empathetic friend in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight.  Detailing a single night in which the inevitable conflicts and competing desires inherent to intertwining two lives bubble to the forefront, the film deftly captures the competing push of human selfishness and pull of commitment’s comforts.  Linklater seems to state the old adage that you cannot have your cake and eat it too, but carefully adds that with enough effort, a couple can work together to share more cake than either could eat individually.  While recognizing the unavoidable pains and sacrifices of functioning relationships, the film poignantly expresses that it is worth the effort.
                This is a stark break from the prior two installments of this story, 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, for while those films skillfully captured the thrill of new love’s promises, this film provides a counterpoint – those promises don’t come easy, and many times feel fleeting.  Where previously the obstacles of distance and circumstance distanced Jesse and Celine, here they must face the reality of their own faults.  Adding a fitting gravitas to their continuing journey, the film provides an insightful survey to what happens after the gusts of a whirlwind romance die down, leaving the consolation of familiarity.
                In this sense, the film reminds me of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, which also follows a couple searching to find a spark in their relationship, but to Linklater’s credit, he does not follow that film’s cynicism (per my reading, at least).  Rather, this film celebrates the joys of overcoming conflict and striving to make things work, and by avoiding any sugarcoating, the true weighty significance of the seemingly small victories we see come to light.  At first glace, the film may seem slight compared to the events of its prequels, but in digging deeper, it is an inescapably essential addition to this couple’s story.  So many films celebrate momentous romantic gestures, but this film joins the ranks of the few that successfully celebrate the much more common daily efforts that sustain and nurture lasting romance.

**** out of ****

Celine and Jesse amongst the group.
                There is a scene in the middle of this film in which a group of intellectual European couples discuss relationships, monogamy, and “to death do us part”.  The conversation is quite cynical about lifelong monogamy, focusing on the (now common) idea that it is no longer possible or good to expect people to remain in relationships for the long haul.  Or at least, if they do, the people in these relationships will become exceedingly unhappy and no longer love each other. This view of our times prioritizes the momentary emotions of falling in love and devalues the work involved in staying in love.  Soon after, the film provides a biting counterpoint, as Jesse speaks about his grandparents who seemed to be deeply in love until their deaths.  It is the example of couples like them that leads Jesse and Celine to hold out hope and pursue one another through the bad – trying to reignite a now-mundane romance.
                Shot almost entirely in a series of conversations between Jesse and Celine, what is most striking about this excellent film is its incredibly realistic dialogue.  Even when Jesse and Celine discuss big ideas of life and time, or simply playfully flirt with one another, they pause to talk about how they haven’t had conversations like those in years – how very true to life!  Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke slip comfortably back into the roles they helped create, diving headlong into the conflicts of resentment and pride that are all-too commonplace in everyday life.  Additionally, the film gutsily tackles the meaty subject of fallout after divorce, not glossing over it as the result of “fate” or “true love” as so many modern people would be wanton to do.  The film is an honest, heartbreaking, and hopeful examination of a relationship in the middle stages of life.  In today’s world, this may be more romantic than falling in love as depicted in the previous films of this Before trilogy.  Wonderful.

A very strong ***½ out of ****

"Monogamy? No thanks!" (D&C like monogamy.)
                I’m glad you brought up the dinner conversation, because I found it to be a pivotal to the thematic progression of the film.  If marriage is nothing more than a means to mutual gratification, it is foolish to believe it will last, let alone be worth the fight.  Some of the couples in the film would agree and argue that once the flame is gone, it is time to begin the search for the excitement of a new flame.  Yet, the film ultimately pushes back against this concept as selfish and base, for while its characters may understand their positions in theory, their actions and affections speak volumes about their underlying desires.  As actions reveal true positions, it is clear that the characters of this film are innately drawn to the concepts of commitment and sacrifice.  After all, only one comment brings a toast from the table, and that comment, from an older widow, spoke to the deep joys of successfully making two joined lives feel natural and reassuring, even if death makes these superior joys temporary as well.  As Linklater works in references to art inspired by Christian faith and piety at various points of the film (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the ancient paintings of a small chapel), it makes sense that these characters, who appreciate such works with adoration, all grasp for lasting meaning in their respective relationships – an ode to the Imago Dei and common grace of God if I have ever seen one, albeit most likely an inadvertent one.

                It was absolutely an important scene, and a lovely one at that.  It was, however, the only scene I had (very) slight problems with.  It didn’t detract from the film overall, but I felt like the dialogue from the people that weren’t Celine and Jesse was just a bit too on-the-nose, especially the young couple.  On the other hand, I feel like young people often say things that are obvious in that way; I know I do!

She's just a baby!
               The younger man states that this is the first time they have been invited to eat with the adults, and I think that young people in that position (especially if they are in a relationship) have a benign eagerness to prove themselves that seems somewhat insincere.  I’m not sure if that is what Linklater was going for, but it nonetheless captures it well – a case of cinematic serendipity, if you will.

Life is tragic here.
                I love your term “benign eagerness.”  It describes that interaction perfectly.  The setting of scene, in general, just bothered me a bit.  A group of four (clearly wealthy) couples, eating grapes and fresh food on some patio in a villa in Greece – it just seems so cliché.  It makes sense why Jesse and Celine are there, but it still is a bit pat, especially since everyone seemed to have the perfect quip in perfect timing.  It provided some of the only moments of the film that felt scripted, even if they were poignant.

                You make a good point – the scene could have benefitted from a bit more conversational authenticity.  That being said, it provided a thematic base to interpret the film as a whole, so I’m not sure Linklater could have been as successful providing this base while maintaining the high degree of verisimilitude the rest of the film carries.
                On another note, it was interesting that, in a sense, this film serves as a retraction of its prequels.  The ending of Before Sunset, in which Jesse elects to leave his wife and child for Celine, while utterly believable, was also deeply unsettling for me as someone committed and strengthened by the concept of romantic commitment.  It seems odd that Jesse, who left his wife and life in America so rashly, would weather the storms of his relationship with Celine. Would not it be more expected for him to likewise leave Celine for a new romance found on one of his book tours?

                One of the things that (slightly) bothered me about the film was the way that Jesse and Celine both demonized Jesse’s ex-wife.  I understand that divorce is extremely messy, and it is probably easier to justify if you do demonize your ex-wife.  However, at one point Celine refers to her with some extremely strong language, and it would have been more realistic if Jesse maybe simmered her down a bit and reminded her that she is, in fact, the mother of his son.  If she is that horrible in real life, then that seems a bit convenient for the story – it’s easier to side with new lovers if the old lover is terrible.

Apparently, Hawke signs autographs for Mark McGrath.
                I mostly agree, though I do not find it unbelievable that Jesse would not speak up for his former wife.  That particular comment marks a small blemish in the midst of one of the film’s most impressive sequences - the climactic fight scene.  It could have been the best relational tiff I have ever seen, for its ebbs and flows were both illogical and understandable – like any real, good fight.  I could ask what you thought about this sequence, but instead I will ask something a bit more provocative: who did you find yourself siding with?

                That IS a provocative question!  I found myself siding with Jesse most of the time – with the exception of a few exchanges regarding his cheating and efforts to circumvent the question altogether.  What drove me nuts about Celine was how she would assume she knew Jesse’s thoughts in their entirety and read into them whatever her insecurities were.  Frequently she was right, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating.  She had the ability to make everything much bigger than it needed to be, possibly blowing things up on purpose, or making up insecurities to gain sympathy.  Sometimes people just like to fight!  In that way, I identified with Celine.  Clearly, the sequence was ultra-realistic.  It would be hard to think Linklater and his actor collaborators were not pulling from experience.  That fight, and the aftermath, was ultimately what sold me on the film.  Who did you side with?

How can I serve you, honey?
                I mostly agree with your assessment of the quarrel, though it is really an unfair question since both play such petty games with each other.  I found Celine utilizing her commitment to feminism as a crutch to be particularly frustrating; especially when it seemed to trivialize Jesse’s deeply felt pain over his growing distance from his son.  I found the sequence to be a microcosm of the paramount problem of so many marriages: people living and thinking about themselves rather than serving their partner.  In this is found an important indictment of the modern romantic ideals espoused by those in the critical dinner scene –modern relationships have become far too self-centered, where they had once been ideally characterized more by mutual submission and service.  Where couples now live two separate lives and cross each other’s paths for a time (per the wisdom of the dinner’s attendees), happy couples throughout history have chosen to give up their independence to work as a team to strive for something greater.
                I have a tendency to put a high value on tautly written films, and I think this film is a prime example of how simplicity in film can enhance thematic impact.   There didn’t seem to be anything out of place, nor anything superfluous, and this made it engaging from beginning to end.

                While I didn’t think it as flawless as you, I loved it all the same and would recommend it to anyone, whether you have been in a relationship long enough to empathize with its characters or if you simply know someone who could empathize.

Two-as-one rating: *** ¾ out of ****

Note: This film contains graphic sex talk/language as well as prolonged female nudity.


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