Since watching a “Before Midnight” matinee two days ago (with, surprisingly, only one other person in the audience besides my husband and me), I’ve been bothered by it.
I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I wanted to
like love it. I wanted to love it so bad that I’m actually troubled by the fact that I didn’t. (I’m also a bit intimidated by the fact that every single review I’ve read has been absolutely glowing.)
I own “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” If they were VHS tapes, the ribbons would be worn out. It’s safe to say they’re my favorite movies of all time in part because the simple style, interpersonal tension, character development, and intimate interactions are so natural and honest and real (and well-written and lacking in trite, cliché, or “safe” dialogue) that had I not lived a similar experience, I would enjoy the movies purely for what they are.
However, I do also love them in part because I have lived a similar experience. I can feel—from memory, not as a manufactured response to a fictional story—the intensity of the kind of “Before Sunrise” connection that makes a cobblestone alley, an old cemetery, a town square fountain, or a dive bar transform into a magical place that could have been put there for no other reason than to be a backdrop to a love story.
When watching “Before Sunset,” the sudden tears that spring the moment Jesse sees Celine at the bookstore reading come not from Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke having created a successfully sentimental movie moment (which they did), but from experience, from knowing the precise feeling of seeing—after ten years—a soul mate whose physical absence hasn’t diminished the power of his presence in my pysche since the last brief, but beautifully surreal, meeting.
The writing is loyal to their connection through to the final moment of “Sunset.” In the last scene, Celine moves in her Paris apartment to the music of Nina Simone as Jesse, smiling, watches her (positively smitten) from the couch. “Baby,” she says, “you are going to miss that plane” [home to his wife and son]. He, still smiling and wholly unapologetic, says, “I know.”
(This is arguably the best ending of any movie ever made.)
We know they’re still together within the first minute of “Before Midnight,” because Jesse is at the airport with his son and speaking a foreign language to the woman behind the food counter. His son, we discover, had spent his summer vacation in Greece with Jesse and Celine (also there on vacation – they live in Paris). Jesse is seeing him off, sending him home to the States (and his mother).
When Jesse exits the airport, Celine is waiting for him, standing against the passenger side of their car while talking on the phone.
Finally, after ten years, Jesse and Celine and their extraordinary love story are back, and I’m excited, filled with curiosity. And I’m thinking, “Please don’t have kids please don’t have kids please don’t have kids.”
For a second, maybe three, there’s promise, there’s a chan—
And then, there it is: the shadow of two heads in the back seat, seen through the rear window as the camera follows Jesse to the driver’s side.
Inserting children into the relationship/story line allowed the writers to fall back on typical family-related struggles approached in typical ways rather than exploring (and exploiting) the potentially harrowing and supremely complicated emotional conflict that could arise between two people who have turned idealized long-distance soul-mate love into grounded we’re-always-together-love.
Granted, there are some gut-wrenching moments in “Before Midnight.” First, there is the absence of the magic Celine and Jesse once had. They seem fine together, but not special, and that’s terrible (in a wonderful kind of way). As spectacular as a “normal” relationship can be, there’s still hope that these two will have maintained that sparkly “thing” that separates them from the grime of the world, that inspires a riverbank poet to write their story, and that they’re stuck in the everydays of the everycouple is heartbreaking (good).
There is also the thought-provoking dinner conversation about the transient nature of life (and love), and the disappointing (in a good way, for the story) walk Jesse and Celine take that launches “Before” devotees back in time to the passionate, revealing, and entertaining exchanges the younger versions of the couple had—and which they don’t quite manage in the same way, now, even if they do get close.
And then there is Celine telling Jesse she doesn’t think she loves him, anymore — and the silent moments after she leaves the hotel room.
But the rest…
The rest, as I feared it would be (but hoped it wouldn’t) if they had children, is not a strangely simple and yet still somehow profound investigation into their relationship ten years later, which is incidentally something they easily could have done even with children in the picture, as the twins don’t make much of an appearance beyond the first ten minutes.
Instead, it’s a towering heap of ordinary arguments had by typical couples who have children and who, as a result, feel un/underappreciated, are convinced one partner is doing more work than the other, fear they’ve lost a sense of self since having kids, have a sex life that is apparently suffering (my husband, who also feels strongly about the first two “Before” movies, says the subtitle for the third could be “Jesse Tries to Get Laid”), and who are dealing with the logistical nightmare of having a child/step-child in another country as well as the psychological nightmare of dealing with a batty ex-wife.
A decent (if stacked-on) conflict pile for any other relationship drama, but theirs lacks the foundation that was the first two movies. Aside from bits and pieces of dialogue serving as reminders to the audience, the core of what made theirs such a phenomenal film story is largely absent. “Midnight” could stand on its own, a new version of Willis and Pfeiffer’s “The Story of Us,” and it shouldn’t be able to.
Back to the batty ex-wife, because it brings me to another area where I felt the writers took a disappointingly easy way out…
In “Sunset,” Jesse tells Celine about the wonderful woman he impregnated and then married, but who – in the end – just isn’t the right person for him. In “Midnight,” we are made to understand that she’s an angry alcoholic. Why the change? Did she become this way after Jesse left her? Celine does ask Jesse, “How long is she going to hate me,” but that hatred doesn’t appear to be related to the ex’s other negative traits, so while it could be argued that her bitter alcoholism was caused by the divorce, it doesn’t come across that way in the movie. It seems more likely that the writers, when creating “Midnight,” simply weren’t comfortable with Jesse having left a nice woman for the right woman.
Had they allowed Jesse’s ex to be smart, funny, and in all other ways perfectly normal and reasonable, there would have been a wonderful opportunity to explore the difficulty of wanting to be happy, the force behind the kind of love that would make it almost easy for a married person to leave his or her spouse, and how that kind of dynamic would operate after a number of years. Instead, they (it seems) felt the need to redeem Jesse and legitimize his relationship with Celine by making his ex-wife an intolerable creature the audience would applaud him for leaving.
The ending, too, feels unfinished — and not the good kind of unfinished we get in the first two movies, but the kind of unfinished that makes you wonder whether they’d run out of energy and just weren’t as committed to this movie as they were to the others. There’s not enough time between “I don’t think I love you, anymore” and the unconvincing, predictable, and – sadly – contrived last line. (I could punch myself for saying that, but I do remember thinking after Delpy delivers the last line, “Oh, dear.”)
I like the movie, and I’ll watch it again, but it’s no true “Before.” If there is one great success of “Before Midnight,” it’s that it captures a real-life relationship (even by blaming children for the downward spiral of their romantic connection). The arguments are real, and they’re spectacular. The anger is deep, the battle is vicious, and the lack of intimacy (they hardly touch unless it’s sexual and rarely make meaningful eye contact) is chilling. But where it fails is in its approach to that real-life relationship, an approach that makes the third installment every bit as “normal” a movie as the relationship portrayed between Jesse and Celine.
I have to wonder if it could be because Linklater lived the first story (and loved its story quality), then spent years, perhaps, imagining what a future meeting would be like and used all of that wonder for a brilliant sequel, but that none of them – Hawke, Delpy, nor Linklater – had the personal experience + genuine interest to delve as deeply into part three as would have been necessary to really nail it.