SXSW Film Review – Before Midnight
One of the most hotly anticipated films making the rounds on the indie circuit has been the latest chapter in the saga of Jesse and Celine, Before Midnight, from director Richard Linklater. After stops at the Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance, I was finally able to catch up with it at SXSW. Weighing the film in my mind, I think the best summary of my feelings was written by the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need.”
Before Midnight marks what might be the end of one of the most enduring romances in film history, between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Picking up nine years after the last chapter, the two are married with a family of their own, but as family and work pressures begin to slip in through the cracks, the question is raised: is this a romance for the ages, or just another one destined for failure?
I might not be the best person to speak about the film. While I enjoyed the first two, I was never as passionate of a fan as the cult following they have developed. I certainly appreciated the chemistry and the film technique, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seating awaiting each new chapter. To me, the series has always been about hope. In Before Sunrise, it was two youths with their future uncertain, but there is a chance they may get together. In Before Sunset, they are older and more established, but their chemistry is reignited and launches the possibility that perhaps they could still have a relationship as soulmates. Tonally, though, Before Midnight is a pretty dramatically different movie than the preceding two. Sure, there’s still plenty of walking, talking, and philosophizing, but they have already achieved what they previously dreamed of and unfortunately the reality has not matched up with the dream. This isn’t a flaw; in a lot of ways, this might be the most honest and visceral movie of the series. But it also does make it the most challenging to watch.
Much like its predecessors, the film is going to turn off some people. It is slow paced, it is almost entirely just two people walking and talking, and, for the majority of the film, there isn’t a heck of a lot of drama. It’s a slow burn, but the payoff at the end is that much sweeter when you get there. Generally I am one who bemoans the pacing of movies, and that was in the back of my mind here, too, but the charisma and chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is a sight to see. Just like in the story of their characters, you can see the decades of collaboration coming to fruition here. In fact, while there are scenes involving other characters, you almost wish those were cut just so you could spend more time with Jesse and Celine. The film definitely touches a nerve for a certain generation—for those who are at a crossroads in life and in love, and can’t help but overanalyze everything that occurs. There is definitely a cathartic element, much more so than in the previous films; you feel like you are working through problems with Jesse and Celine, which increases the intensity of the experience. These aren’t just film characters—they are more like friends, after having spent two decades with them.
This series is an experiment in filmmaking, and it is in large part thanks to the skillful hand of Linklater that it works. With takes that last up to ten to fifteen minutes at a time, the material could easily have the potential to grind to a halt. Thankfully, his trust in his actors rings through. The film is truly an actors’ movie, as things like camera movement, sound design, and special effects are largely forgotten. It is left entirely on the characters’ shoulders to carry the movie; it lives and it dies by their success.
It’s easy to forget how talented Hawke and Delpy are, since he spends a lot of time in mainstream fare and she toils away in smaller projects—so it is a treat to get to see them together again. There is no doubting their chemistry, and they are probably one of the most believable couples I’ve seen on screen…and while the chemistry is nice, their relationship showcases its warts and flaws. It is clear how much of a collaborative effort this project was, because once again the dialogue feels natural, and you can see that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy spent a lot of time polishing it to get it just right.
While Linklater has left the door open for future films should inspiration strike again, I hope this is where they end the series. It feels the most natural and honest, and it concludes in probably the most fitting way the series could end.
Final Grade: A-