Before Midnight (2013) — Dir. Richard Linklater (USA)

It is about a typical couple on a typical summer vacation, and that’s what makes the movie so appealing. Seeing unmistakable elements of real life captured on screen — the jokes, the conversations, the arguments — may sometimes prompt audiences to forget that they are watching a film, and instead directly glimpsing the lives of a couple on holiday. Yet Richard Linklater — director of the acclaimed Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), the prequels of this 2013 release — brings Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) back for us one more time, showing that the magic can happen in the movies. A magic built from the stuff of relationships in real life.

You can hear still hear echoes of the two earlier films, which chronicle the lovers’ chance meeting eighteen years back, and then their rendevous nine years later. We can choose whether to believe that the nine years between each of Linklater’s films in the series is mere coincidence, but that serves to drive home the same point: what he has captured on screen for us could very well be the documentation of someone in real life. It isn’t necessary for viewers to watch the two prequels before proceeding into Before Midnight, since the film ensures everyone is up to speed on how Jesse and Celine met on a train in Europe and both got off in Vienna eighteen years back, spending one night together wandering alleys and exchanging long conversations that is the stuff of young adults in love. Though both promising to meet up a couple months later, they fail to do so, and meet each other again nine years later in Paris, after Jesse has become an accomplished novelist and published his debut, which Celine has read and realized it is about the two of them in Vienna. Hoping for another chance encounter, she finds Jesse amidst his book tour that prompts an afternoon of reconnection, with both parties contemplating what could have been during these nine years, and what resulted instead. As sunset quickly announces Jesse’s flight out of Paris, the lovers are once again given the choice; despite their nine years apart and marriage and families, something is clearly magical between them, and to give it up twice seems like a heartbreak of which there is no return.

Then come Before Midnight, and the realization that Jesse never caught his flight and instead followed his heart, resulting in a new marriage and two beautiful young daughters with Celine. We will definitely cheer because the couple remained intact, but are presented immediately the challenge of dealing with the realities that come with fragmented families and new lovers. Jesse begins with a heavy-heart, having just sent off his teenage son back to his mother in Chicago from Greece. Through conversing with Celine, we learn that Jesse’s former wife unsurprisingly took his actions very seriously, and became a raging alcoholic upon learning about the man’s infidelity. “While I was having my twins in Paris,” Celine recalls as they drive through the countryside of a small Greek island, “your wife screwed you over on the legal side and took away everything.” Even his son, whom Jesse can now only see for a very limited time each year.

We get a clear idea of what has happened in nine years through Jesse and Celine’s dialogue, which are often long-takes of more than fifteen minutes apiece, skillfully rendered and paced to provide the most convincing portraits of two middle-aged adults discussing what a couple at age forty would discuss. Their kids, Jesse’s new novel, Celine’s new job, moving to Paris, not relocating to New York, raising a family, the role of passion and love and sex at their age, the onset of death. It may sound uneventful from the perspective of pure plot mechanics, but viewers of these exchanges will not be bored. Those who enjoy the verbal exploration of deeper philosophical pursuits can find it all here, because Jesse and Celine deal quite a bit with thinking about their own relationship and the difference that eighteen years has made. They are still in love — but a different type of love, where though the sex and heated passions today, one gets the hint that the zest and mystery of randomly connecting with a stranger is slowly fading. The realities of raising a family and living with one another — while dealing with incessant reminders of previous relationships — is starting to kick in.

The real power of Before Midnight is how it refuses to let bubbling frustrations and ongoing tensions disappear, where just like real life, an eruption can occur anytime from something like a phone call. Like any vacationing couple, Jesse and Celine dive into passionate lovemaking on their final evening. Any blockbuster Hollywood hit would have dialed up the steaminess and sensuality of the scene and played out the nudity and naughtiness until the end. Linklater instead tiptoes into that territory with some initial half-nakedness from our two characters — and of course,with talking: the dialogue is never absent, and we are happy for it — before a phone call from Jesse’s son shatters everything. Things creep away from the edge of passion and plunge into full-blown hostility, as years of grievance and frustration suddenly burst onto the scene through shouting and gritted teeth. It is heart-wrenching to see Jesse and Celine go through what countless couples go through, due in no small part to the scene’s life-like progress, development, and ambiguous resolution.

Before Midnight does not erase the possibility of another sequel, though that is besides the point for viewers once they reach the end. Linklater leaves the couple to reconcile and hopefully patch up their differences and harsh accusations — Celine even belts out “I don’t love you anymore Jesse” — and backs away slowly. The ending is powerful because in the spirit of the series, there is the consideration of what awaits in the next nine years. Maybe Linklater won’t shoot a picture of it, but Jesse and Celine still live within couples today. How are both of them going to think about this night a decade or more onwards? Would there be lamentation over their separation, should they decide the relationship is too much strain and not worth the happier moments? Or would memories of their chance meeting and all the sacrifices they’ve made to realize their love hold out, and ensure they ride out this rough spot and live and die together? As a movie, Before Midnight engages viewers by putting together the pieces of a modern fairy-tale and making it all work out. As a movie, Before Midnight grips its audience because it says so much about real life.