Where did the time go? Has it really been nine years since we last saw Celine and Jesse, in Paris, rekindling the romance that first sparked nine years before that, in Vienna? Luckily (for us and for them) they are still together, having hatched a pair of sweet blond twin girls and glided, or maybe stumbled, into their 40s. And, of course, because they are played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Celine and Jesse are still better looking than most of the rest of us, and still have quite a lot to say about themselves, each other and the world.
“Before Midnight,” the third of Richard Linklater’s Aristotelian bulletins from the field of Gen-X solipsism, finds them in Greece, at the end of a summer vacation that has been pleasant, though not entirely carefree. These two have never been terribly easygoing, despite their efforts to keep things casual and cool. For their Peloponnesian sojourn, they were joined by Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), Jesse’s son from the stateside marriage that conclusively ended when he missed the plane home from Paris in “Before Sunset.” The boy’s departure precipitates some soul-searching on his father’s part.
Jesse wishes they could have more time together, and he wants to explore the possibility of moving to Chicago from their home in Paris to be closer to Hank and challenge the custody arrangements that have kept him with his unnamed, conveniently demonized mother. Celine, perhaps jumping to conclusions and perhaps wise to Jesse’s passive-aggressive ways, interprets his invitation to think about the move as a demand to make it happen.
They will fight about this, but not only or primarily about this, in the course of a day that includes a leisurely drive from the airport, a long meal with friends and a reluctant visit to a hotel in a charming seaside town. At one point an implicit allusion is made to “Voyage to Italy,” Roberto Rossellini’s great 1954 film about the foundering of a marriage in a picturesque Mediterranean location. In that movie, the bright sun exposes fissures in the relationship between the characters played by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman, who also seemed haunted by the ghosts of vanished civilizations.
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Jesse and Celine, though they are creatures of a different time, are susceptible to a similar malaise. Their complaints about each other may be banal and specific — he’s a slob; she’s a nit-picker — but, as always, their quarrels and digressions gesture toward something larger.
I don’t mean the way they talk about big ideas, though that is one of their habits. Jesse, a writer, spends some time spit-balling themes for his new novel in the company of an older colleague and a Greek neighbor, and a bunch of perennial philosophical puzzles — the meaning of love, the nature of time, the difference between men and women — are batted around over wine and stuffed peppers (in company that includes Athina Rachel Tsangari, the director of “Attenberg,” and Ariane Labed, that film’s star).
This talk is sometimes interesting, sometimes exasperating, and impressively true to the rhythms and idioms of actual speech. It constitutes almost all of the action in the movie, though there is also some walking, driving and an inconclusive attempt at sex. But the words are only incidentally, or superficially, what the movie is about. They represent Jesse and Celine’s attempt — and Linklater’s — to control the flow of experience, to find meaning, and to keep a terrible and nameless anxiety at bay.
“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” are modest, charming movies that together add up to the great romantic epic of a generation defined, in the popular mind and our therapists’ offices, by hedged bets, easy ironies and perpetual confusion. Linklater’s shooting style is so graceful and unobtrusive, and Hawke and Delpy inhabit their characters with such conviction, that the challenge and originality of the movies are easy to overlook. It is also easy to be distracted by your feelings about Jesse and Celine, who can get on your nerves almost as much as they get on each other’s.
Yet that is part of the genius, and also the integrity, of this cycle of films. It is hard to think of a pair of lovers in recent screen history who expend less effort trying to charm the audience. All of their attention is focused on each other, with the rest of us as intimate witnesses, laughing and cringing and sometimes crying as they tack from coy evasion to vicious honesty and back. Celine’s anger — a general feminist impatience with men and a particular resentment of Jesse’s self-absorption — is both thrilling and shocking. Jesse’s dreamy intellectualism can be appealing, but you can also see how his complacency provokes Celine’s rage.
If the spectacle this time is funnier and more poignant than before, that is because the stakes have shifted. “Before Sunrise” was a bittersweet romance about young people — Could we ever really have been that young? Are we really that old now? — with all the time in the world to savor regrets and learn from mistakes. “Before Sunset” was a comedy of second chances, zigzagging toward a long-deferred happy ending.
“Before Midnight” is something rarer and riskier. In her new book, “I Do and I Don’t,” the film scholar Jeanine Basinger tracks the history of “the marriage movie,” an elusive, perhaps mythical genre that tries to dramatize one of the most common and mysterious of human relations. In modern cinema, she writes, “stories of marriage grew less and less dramatic, slowing down to an almost cinC)ma-vC)ritC) movement toward realism, with no resolution or explanation to be found, and certainly no explanation of what kept any couple together.”
Though Celine and Jesse are not married, “Before Midnight” fits this description almost exactly, which is to say that it is exquisitely attuned to the fragile, flawed nature of their bond. We have known them, and they have known each other, for a long time now, but we don’t know, from one moment to the next, what their future will be, or what it is that keeps them going.
That kind of uncertainty, a scary fact of life, is something most movies avoid. We prefer the magical thinking of neat endings, tidy plots and clear character arcs. “Before Midnight” is a wonderful paradox: a movie passionately committed to the ideal of imperfection that is itself very close to perfect.