By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Sundance Review: Before Midnight

Before Midnight, the third installment of Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s “Before” series (after 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset), reunites us with one of cinema’s most-beloved romances: Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Fans of the star-crossed lovers are dying to know: what has happened over the past nine years? What follows Sunset’s unforgettable ending?
(“Baby, you are going to miss that plane.”)
(“I know.”)

Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine in sun-kissed Greece, each in their forties with emotional baggage in tow. And it’s perfect.

Like Midnight’s predecessors, the movie exists less as a narrative and more as a string of conversations that take place over a single 24-hour span: over the dinner table, in the bedroom, or in the car. While nothing truly happens in Before Midnight, we can see that much has happened since Before Sunset, allowing the incredible writing to take over and fill in the narrative gap. Indeed, this is a script for the ages: the seamless dialogue (penned again by Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke) flows freely and without hiccups, putting to shame what you once thought was believable speech in movies. This is more voyeurism than acting and writing.

The script is realized primarily with Linklater’s trademark Steadicam, framing in long takes the characters as they wander through lush European locales. These extended shots will remind you why you love film, as Linklater treats everyone involved with the utmost respect: our hands aren’t held (there aren’t even subtitles) and the actors are given plenty of screen time to breathe and do their jobs. In other words, excessive editing is eschewed while a flawless cast performs an unbeatable script. It’s a simple formula, but one that is often neglected or ruined by the poor artistic decisions of lesser filmmakers. Not so, here. The dials have been tuned to just the right frequency. There is nothing to be changed.

While the supporting players do a wonderful job adding in some welcome comic relief, the chemistry between Delpy and Hawke is something to revere; something to place in a glass case and marvel at in museums. These are career-best performances. Their honed chemistry—alongside their wizened perspectives on life as a fortysomething—makes Before Midnight the funniest of the trilogy. Eighteen years can change a lot about a relationship dynamic, and Linklater finds himself with ample comedy to mine from: the many differences between men and women, middle-aged sexuality, and what being in love actually means. But there’s trouble in Paradise, as Celine and Jesse each have personal struggles and external forces weighing them down and pulling them in opposite directions. This places an immense strain on their connection, perhaps forcing an inevitable, unwanted compromise. Make no mistake: this is still a romantic drama.

With each film in this series, Richard Linklater has given us a day-in-the-life snapshot of two lovers. As a result, this approach has painted a deeper portrait of the characters that Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater have crafted over the years: how they’ve grown physically, how they’ve matured romantically, and how they see the world differently. When you add Before Midnight to the two existing films, the result is a breathtaking trilogy that not only tracks this fabled love over nearly 20 years, but without really intending to, also manages to showcase the passing of time in a beautiful, staggering way. Of course, given how many years have passed over the creation of these movies, there exists the undeniable novelty in viewing the trilogy in order; observing in a few hours both an evolution in film production (the aesthetic leap between the 1990s and the 2010s is remarkable) and the aging of two very fine actors. While that is certainly something to look forward to, the following should be made clear: Before Midnight is a film that is good enough to stand on its own as a peek into the highs and lows of love. As such, it is a masterpiece that is made even better when viewed with the proper context. This is not simply the cherry on top of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset—it is its own cake entirely.

And it’s perfect.

3 Responses to “Sundance Review: Before Midnight”

  1. Keil S. says:

    Outstanding to hear. I can’t wait for this. Linklater remains a relatively unsung hero in American cinema, but this series could be what makes his name resonate with future generations. Well, this and Dazed and Confused, naturally.

  2. Jake Howell says:

    Well said, Keil.

  3. Keil S. says:

    Thanks. I’m a 34-year-old cinephile, born and raised in Texas, so he holds a special place in my heart. Regardless of locale, however, he’s a remarkable talent who has always seemed like a genuinely kind person and lifelong film buff. And, of course, the films speak for themselves. While they’re not all masterpieces, nearly all of them are bright spots in an often dismal cinematic landscape.

    Just consider these titles for a bit:

    – Slacker
    – Dazed and Confused
    – Before Sunrise
    – Suburbia
    – Waking Life
    – Tape
    – School of Rock
    – Before Sunset
    – A Scanner Darkly
    – Bernie

    Bernie’s shamefully non-existent marketing last year and its eventual appearance on various awards shows and Top 10 lists is a perfect representation of the lack of respect for Linklater’s work, despite its painfully obvious quality.

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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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