Saturday, June 15, 2013

Love: Before Midnight

In yet another summer of super sequels, Before Midnight is perhaps the tiniest and most unlikely retread. It's the third in Richard Linklater's no-frills chronicling of a romance, and follows -in a sort of modified real time- the events of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004).  The first two, of course, have become quietly beloved indie classics. For the uninitiated, a raw synopsis sounds deceptively simple, perhaps to the point of being boring. Two strangers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), meet while traveling and spend one evening talking, walking, pontificating, and falling in love in Vienna.  Just one night, hence the title. The chance encounter was repeated when the lovers reunited in Sunset, but the relative purity remained. Sunrise was, essentially, the bench scene of Manhattan magnified and enhanced. Where Woody Allen gave us one enchanting talking sequence between a pair of like minds (a moment of intellectual porn, basically) Linklater gave us the whole picture. We watched as Jesse and Celine connected, and the curious thing was that somehow the more they did so, the more we were riveted.

Two films later, there's still something fascinating about watching Jesse and Celine simply communicate though we're a long way from the simplicity of that first night. First came the fairy tale, then the bittersweet reunion, and now, the modern, complicated ever after. Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine as parents entering middle age.  An extended summer vacation in Greece with their twin daughters and Jesse's teen son has become somehow trying, and the two argue with increasing frequency. Celine is a strong woman trapped by motherhood, Jesse is a laid back writer who prefers not to dwell on the negative. The story itself is too familiar. We've seen troubled relationships before, we've met couples caught up in what's supposed to be true love. In Before Midnight, though, we find ourselves actually caring. 

Visually, the film isn't much. Long scenes pass with the camera focused on the front seat of a car or tracking the couple as they simply walk through some ruins. As Linklater's camera sits stationary, all attention is diverted to every line of dialogue, every accented pronunciation. We're forced to really listen, and thus to really hear. Though the conversations tend to slip to familiar meditations on love, marriage, gender, and aging, there's a poetry to the meandering differences between the two characters.  We learn everything we need to know about the last ten years through  their bickering, and they expose their individual weaknesses via their own narcissism. They love to hear themselves talk, and in a rare moment of serendipity, we do too. 
Delpy and Hawke co-wrote the script with Linklater, and though they all but disappear into their characters, their individual touches are all over it. There's a sublime pretentiousness here, an honest acknowledgment of the absurdity of their loftiest 'intellectual' thoughts and a way of communicating without fear of judgment or repercussion though the stakes are so very high.  Before Midnight resists becoming a film about two people dealing with the pressures of raising a family and instead focuses on what happens when two dreamers (or thinkers) find themselves without time enough to spend raising themselves.  They're tired and worn, embittered and lost, and the film is consequently as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. We find hope in their absolute honesty. Each speaks in a way the other understands, though they find it trying, and each glimmer of recognition makes us hope all the harder that they'll find a way to stay together. 

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