Richard Linklater’s career has skewed from resolutely indie beginnings (Slacker) to disappointingly unselfconscious studio fare (a remake of Bad News Bears) taking in experimental posturing along the way (Waking Life). He always seems to have something on the go, much of which I’ve enjoyed (and a few I haven’t). As such, he appears to have a not dissimilar work ethic to Steven Soderbergh but puts himself into his pictures in a manner that wouldn’t even occur to the ‘bergh. While I’m not always up-to-date with Linklater’s pictures, I have made time for each of his Before trilogy and it’s been consistently interesting to catch up with his protagonists as each new near-decade passes.
These aren’t films without their flaws. For one thing, it’s still difficult to watch Ethan Hawke in anything and not have in mind the goofy Dead Poets Society kid. While Hawke may not be a whole lot like Jesse (I really don’t know) the mannerisms are his, and he carries them from film to film like great weight around his shoulders; he’s not really as cool as he’d like to be (it helps his credibility therefore that he has ploughed a non-Hollywood furrow). Additionally, if existential angst and philosophical daydreaming are perfectly realised in the stretched realities of Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, in these films they rarely rise above the level of energetic student discourse. It doesn’t make the discussion less interesting (one thing the films get right every time is the creation of conversation) but, particularly as time goes on, the same framing of conversations begins to sound increasingly on the affected side.
In context, that may suit parts of Before Midnight. In which we find Jesse and Céline (Julie Delpy) as a couple of a decade’s standing on holiday in Greece with their twin daughters. Previous romantic encounters have given way to a fully-fledged relationship, and with it, lovestruck reverie has been replaced by the disaffected realisation of the multitudinous flaws each has. They resent that there is no time to be themselves or to reflect on the ideas that once were so essential. Each becomes a projection of the dissatisfactions of the other and, where before we delighted in their conversations, now we are drawn to the chunks they tear off. Jesse is weighed down by self-regarding guilt over failing to spend time with his son by his ex-wife (he lives in America), while Céline is increasingly intolerant of what she sees as Jesse’s selfishness and the growing feeling that she may no longer love him.
As per before, Linklater shares scripting duties with Hawke and Delpy. Their shared experience of parenting has informed Before Midnight, and the discontent that may be bred within the family unit is laid bare unstintingly. Their conversation is an altercation waiting to happen, first located on an extended car journey, then at a meal with friends where they are staying, and finally in and around a hotel earmarked for the final romantic night of their holiday (but which becomes anything but). Whether or not this represents the last legs of the partnership or they are able to salvage something from the wreckage, no punches are pulled in exchanges that range from petty to cruel to tearful.
The expansive philosophical discourses of previous films are now brought down to earth by the accusation of pretentiousness on Jesse’s part (not by Céline, but from cheerful Stefanos played by Panos Koronis). Quite understandably, since the premise of Jesse’s prospective fourth novel sounds quite dreadful. When Jesse and Céline have the chance to pick up the flights of philosophical inquiry they one relished, it doesn’t ring true. One might argue that this is partly because they are going through the motions (Céline opines that she now barely has a minute alone to think during the day, and that’s usually on the toilet). But it also feels like an attempt on the filmmakers’ parts to nurture something of the appeal of the earlier instalments, even though the very environment (in both temperament and age) that fostered such thought has now gone. The dinner party is a particular failure here; not enough is made of the contrast between the fresh young couple Céline and Jesse once were and too much of the “wise” insights of Patrick (Walter Lassally may be a great cinematographer, but he’s a lousy actor).
There’s a greater problem, which may just be me, but I wasn’t able buy into the idea that Jesse and Céline have been a couple for all these years. All I could see was Hawke and Delpy pretending to be a couple that have been together for all these years. They lack a lived-in vibe; even estranged, we need to be able to see familiarity between them that has developed into Céline’s brittleness and Jesse’s standoffishness. The two actors are fine – great even – getting to know each other, but the conceit just doesn’t quite play here.
Nevertheless, the protracted hotel bedroom argument, moving from going-through-the-motions beginnings of lovemaking to no-holds-barred verbal fisticuffs, is riveting viewing. Only occasionally does staginess or studied moments intrude (the double returns of Céline to the room, as without a conversation there is no movie). I might complain that there is a tad too much emphasis on Céline being unlikable, but it is quite easy to see how Jesse’s ingratiating perpetual teenager side would inspire her ire (his time machine gambit may be designed to show his freeform invention, but it is as uninspired as Celine’s intentionally infuriating bimbo impression).
Before Sunrise didn’t really impress me all that much. I saw at the cinema on its release, and it was likeable but very slight. That didn’t change on revisiting it with the release of Before Sunset. In contrast, Sunset was a genuinely great movie. It managed to distil all that was nascent and half-formed in its predecessor, becoming something genuinely affecting and deeply romantic in the process. Midnight probably falls somewhere between the two. As a two-hander it is more impressive than either at times, but at its centre I struggle believing these two are in the place the film sets them. As expected, the trio are non-committal about a third follow-up. I have a feeling that, if it happens, the barbs of Before Midnight could give way to an aching regret and melancholy. And Celine and Jesse in their sixties might be more interesting still. Within such a context my doubts of “Were they ever a couple at all?” might sit more comfortably.