Monday, June 17, 2013

It's still there. It's still there. It's still there. It's gone.

(A warning: While I'm not going to get into overt spoilers, stop reading if you'd prefer to go into Before Midnight without knowing anything that happened to Jesse and Céline after Before Sunset faded to black.)

In my review of Before Sunset, I mentioned how I originally saw it and Before Sunrise when I was younger and less experienced in relationships and life than the characters, and I wondered what Before Midnight would tell me about what life might be like in a few years. So I was surprised to find that, though Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) are now in their early forties and I'm 29, I related to Before Midnight far more immediately than I expected. Perhaps it's true that, as some of my friends have suggested, I'm in the throes of an early mid-life crisis. Where the first film was about a perfect moment and the second was about whether it's possible to recapture the connection Jesse and Céline shared that night, Before Midnight is about the choice between fighting to preserve a romantic ideal of love alive through all of life's mundane and dramatic obstacles, loving a long-term relationship for what it is, or leaving. For anyone with a certain amount of relationship experience and general life baggage, Before Midnight will cut deep, but in the best way possible.

The movie begins at the end of a summer vacation in Greece, as Jesse says goodbye to Henry (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), his son from his first marriage. Jesse did miss his plane nine years earlier, leaving his wife for Céline and eventually moving to Paris with her after the birth of their twin daughters. Director Richard Linklater and his two lead actors once again wrote the screenplay, and they smartly allow us to gradually fill in the important details of the past nine years, rather than forcing a lot of awkward exposition at the start. The characters have grown as we might have guessed, with Céline still the activist who feels despair at her self-described Sisyphean attempts to make the world a better place, and Jesse still the charming, if self-satisfied, romantic. It's true that, as the characters observed in the last film and again in this one, we basically stay the same throughout our lives; what has changed are the characters' circumstances, the responsibilities of raising two children and, in Céline's case, the struggle to balance her own self-identity with her roles as a wife and mother, not to mention the idealized version of her that Jesse has written into two novels. While most relationship movies rely on affairs or other contrivances to create drama, it's a pleasure to watch these two fully developed characters grapple with the simpler, more universal problem of continuing to learn how to grow together.

By now, it's clear that Hawke and Delpy know their characters inside and out, and their easy chemistry as Jesse and Céline flirt and bicker (often at the same time) is a joy. The physical familiarity between the two characters, the way they hold and sometimes lean on each other, rang true; this is the first of the films with a love scene, and it feels like they know each others' bodies well, which can't have been easy for the actors to fake. There's a scene involving nudity that is probably the least gratuitous nude scene I've ever seen; it perfectly gets the point in a relationship where partners can hang out in the buff in the most casual, unerotic way possible. The scene fits perfectly with the main question Linklater and his actors pose, namely, how do we keep a romance alive when we're no longer falling in love but are in the thick of it, when we think we know everything about the other person there is to know? There's a great scene where Céline and Jesse are having dinner with their fellow guests at an elderly writer's summer estate where each guest offers their perspective on love. Linklater gives equal voice to sentimental and pragmatic notions of love; the film repeatedly returns to the idea that with love, as with all of life, all things are uncertain and possibly fleeting. Existential doubt has rarely been presented with such warmth and generosity of spirit.

The movie builds to a protracted argument, which is triggered by Jesse's suggestion that he should live closer to his son but, as with most relationship arguments, is really about a dozen other things. I generally resist using this term, but it's one of the most realistic blowouts between a couple that I've ever seen, perfectly capturing how a person can express a profound truth about the relationship in one breath and make a completely off-base, defensive accusation in the next. It's often hilariously relatable - as I've been known to make a dramatic exit only to return a minute later, I cracked up both times Céline did. At the same time, it gets pretty brutal, largely because each actor is willing to strain our affection for these characters we've fallen in love with - it's painful to watch Céline purposefully insult Jesse to get a rise out of him, or to watch Jesse turn self-righteous in order to evade the hardest questions. At the same time, if one were to film any of us having an argument with our partners, I can't imagine the results would be flattering. Some of the reviews I read of Before Midnight in advance made it sound like the movie built towards Bad Timing levels of emotional violence, but it's not nearly that raw. Frankly, I feel bad for anyone who is that disturbed by the reality that couples, even great couples, sometimes have painful arguments; they've got some rough times ahead.

Though Linklater and his cast don't pull any punches about how hard it can be to make even the best relationships work, Before Midnight still ends on a note of hope. I suspect that these movies are the work of a director and two actors who, with each new chapter, try harder but continually fail at hiding the fact that they're unabashed romantics. These films are clear-eyed but never cynical. I suspect that we'll find Jesse and Céline still together in nine years, but even if they aren't, the movie suggests, that doesn't take anything away from what they've shared (and shared with us). And if this turns out to be the last chapter in the story, it ends on a perfect note. These characters once agreed to make the most of the one moment they'd share; now, having built a life together, they're left with the hope that they're still living in that moment.

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