I’ve now seen Before Midnight twice and want to talk it through a little.
As I want to flag up specific plot points, here be SPOILERS for both this and the earlier movies though if you’ve come to these films for the plot you’re in the badlands, son. Here’s a little picture breakpoint for those who want to get out now. Keep your eyes left, not right.
So Before Midnight is a sequel I’ve been waiting for without knowing it. It continues the story of Jesse and Celine – Bright Young Things who first meet on a train in 1993 and spend a night freewheeling around Vienna and falling in love. Nearly a decade later they reunite in Paris – partly by chance, partly by design – and we see the fallout that that one Viennese evening has had on their lives.
I first encountered the earlier movies, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, when I was eighteen. I bought them both on a whim during my Christmas shift return to Virgin Megastore in my first year of uni (in many ways, it was still the best job I’ve ever had). Stressed and exhausted from the day’s work, I dropped onto the sofa as soon as I got home, turned on the DVD player, and found myself drawn into a pair of movies about being lost in time with one other person. I’ve been a fanboy ever since.
Between the pop psychology pondering of our boho leads, the relatively low stakes and lack of a real antagonism (a slight time constraint “ticking bomb” aside – more on this later) I can see how a viewer might get really bored – in a lot of ways, the Before movies shouldn’t work as drama.
However, this viewer provides the perfect chump for movies like this (one of my first scripts was actually called Solipsism – yes, it was terrible so feel free to remind me in person) and what I took from them is that there can be great drama in small moments and if you have two absorbing leads you can draw an audience to the screen in the same way as they might be with a thriller plot. A long take of a coy, silent scene from the first movie where the characters exchange and miss glances in a recording booth still makes me go all fuzzy whenever I think of it.
I got to see those glances on the big screen when I found myself at a Before Sunrise/Before Sunset double bill in my early twenties. I still loved them both but – whisper it – I started to find the musings of the first one slightly grating, whereas the real magic seemed to be in Sunset, the ending of which is one of my favourite moments in cinema, even accounting for Ethan Hawke’s terrible shirt. When that scene came up in the cinema, I took a look at the audience. Stupid grins all around the house. Girl gets Boy who gets Girl, it’s all very chaste. Story over.
So when I heard that a third movie was in the works, I was filled with trepidation. Was this going to be a disappointing sequel, bolted on to superior work, forever tainting what came before? In the same way that you can’t go bigger than God (looking at you, Indiana), how do you trump a hard-won happy ending?
Picking up nine years after that much-loved ending of mine, Before Midnight’s set-up gives us a middle-aged Celine and Jesse on holiday in Greece with some friends. The skies are blue, they have two adorable daughters – twins, no less – and life seems to have more or less worked out for them. So far, so middle-class. As ever though, there’s trouble in paradise. The opening scene alerts us that Jesse’s relationship with his son, Hank, (the product of an youthful marriage gone sour) is stilted and Jesse’s desire to get closer to his son before he grows up provides the catalyst for the disintegration of the cosy partnership that Celine and Jesse have established. Little by little, unaired grievances make their way out, culminating in a vicious argument in a hotel room that serves as the cornerstone of the film.
Two views in, I can say that my fears were unfounded and, whilst it’s not unproblematic, Before Midnight deserves its slot. It references its predecessors both thematically and structurally – the walk to the hotel is a nice touch – without being cute about it, whilst finding its own quirks. It retains the pop philosophy, but quite unpretentiously so – its all armchair (or rather dinner table) stuff.
However, it certainly shifts the sensibility of the Before movies being as it is a messy, deflating corrective to the rising romance indulged in by its forerunners, which put me in mind of Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. The characters’ most charming attributes resurface, but this time they are used for more brutal ends. Jesse’s wit still disarms but it also cuts in equal measure. Celine retains her anger and whilst it remains the endearing source of her playfulness, it becomes unyielding. Making loved characters bitter and cruel is a brave decision and re-watching the trilogy with Midnight’s dour inflection is going to be a fascinating experience.
It’s not unremittingly bleak though and Midnight settles on a view of love as something painful but worth it, in the vein of Annie Hall‘s “we need the eggs” and Eternal Sunshine‘s “Ok? Ok” endings. While it’s not quite in the same league as those classic, I like that it draws greater attention to the mechanics of a relationship. Annie Hall plays it for laugh and gives us the absurd, showreel moments. Eternal Sunshine gives us a good vs. gritty nostalgia tour. Midnight and the other Before films give us the play by play.
With the first two it was a microscopic examination of a courtship and the subsequent rekindling. In this new movie our lovers have been now been together for years, but that narrow focus remains, providing a perspective on relationships that is both altogether more mundane and more insightful. Reality has ferreted its way into Jesse and Celine’s romance and the fear is now not that they’ll never be together but that they’ll always be together. If the first two films are a call to not stick on seventeen, this is a tale about how the winnings from gambling don’t make you happy in of itself forever.
The dramatisation of this dilemma is one of the film’s problem areas. The free flow of the earlier two movies was wonderful but it was always underpinned by an immediate time pressure. Without that, the events seem less dramatically urgent and the Mametian question of “why now?” lingers over the film. There are small things hinted at, like Jesse’s guilt over his son’s life or this being the first time they’ve been alone for ages but you can’t help but shake the feeling that the conflict at the centre of this movie would’ve manifested itself at some point earlier in their relationship. This is not to say that the “stuck forever” dilemma uninteresting or not worthy of consideration, it just throws the familiar pacing off a little bit: Why does anything have to happen Before Midnight?
I also think that Midnight misses a trick by not giving us more time with Jesse and Celine’s twins. What we are shown of them, they are either sleeping darlings or perfectly nice and not at all troublesome. When they head off to an allegedly much needed hotel break, we don’t gain much sense of what it is that the couple need to get away from. This is more problematic for Celine because whilst we are invited to view Jesse and his son’s growing distance, we do not get to see any of Celine’s frustrations with the twins.
Of course you could suggest that because Celine has been so good at silently bearing the burden it’s appropriate that we don’t see her upset – a valid line of thought considering it’s a common situation. Also, it seems odd to criticise a Before movie for telling and not showing, but it mixes both those modes and since show is always more powerful, Jesse gains a sympathetic advance, which is to Celine’s detriment. I know a couple of people (both women) who have thought her character annoying and unreasonable this time around and I would suggest that this is one reason for this.
Another reason might be because of how Celine’s points about the wider world are expressed. In the previous films, whenever a character brought up a broader point about life, power relations etc, it also had a subtext such as “fancy me, I’m smart.” Here it is the point and so it can feel like those views that have been put in her mouths, rather than genuinely coming from inside her. She gets to be a mouthpiece; Jessie gets most the good lines. This is, I suppose, an accurate reflection of the frustration that underpins feminist discourse in a world that remains dominated by men who don’t want to know. Maybe this is another realist corrective to the earlier films where part of the joy was the balance between the protagonists. If so, it attempts to even it up again by making Jesse the one who has to win back Celine at the end. Whether or not you found her annoying and overbearing, his wanting to be with her (hopefully) makes you realise that, for Jesse, she’s worth it despite any temporary disillusionment or permanent human flaws, just as he is a total know-it-all smart-arse but one you can still love.
Phew! After that deluge you might think I didn’t like the movie, but I really did. I only write this much about it because it’s still whirring in me, so here are some Ideas That Intrigued that I gleaned from Before Midnight that have stayed in my head:
– Relationships are built on and sustained by the way you play together. That play is no less real or important than the occasional desk-clearing argument.
– If you’re involved with someone, the idea that you can be two distinct people for the rest of your life sounds affirming but is actually bullshit. (cf. Aristotle: “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.”) Continuing with gambling metaphors, at some point you have to go all in.
– The way your courtship was “framed” has a bigger effect on your subsequent relationship than you think it does. This is something I’ve thought about a lot in relation to my Grand Romance play and will explore in future posts.
– The capacity for people and circumstances to change is a disposition test. Is that idea disturbing or hopeful? Nothing’s permanently great but nothing’s permanently fucked either.
– In the same way that being alive for seventy five years is worth it though you won’t exist for most of eternity, being in love for nine years of your life is still good going, even if it you never find it again.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about Before Midnight is that whilst having another movie after Before Sunset seemed unnatural me, the end of Midnight seems to invite another look. Will the Before movies become a fictional version of the Up Series? We’ll find out in 2022, I guess.
EDIT: A woozy, romantic, summery song to leave you all on: