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Light And Shade: Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013) – DVD review

October 23, 2013 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Suns rise, suns set – yet even Jesse and Celine’s darkest hour cannot extinguish the light of Linklater’s stunning ‘real time’ trilogy.

Before Midnight
(Richard Linklater, 2013)

There’s a reason they call them movies– because, usually, they’re always in such a hurry. But with the Before trilogy, Richard Linklater has pioneered the joys of waiting. As the titles suggest – and confirmed by a character in this concluding part – if you’re in a rush to get to a specific moment, be it a sunrise, a sunset or midnight, you’ll most likely miss it. By concentrating on the Before, you’ll get much more out of it, and maybe find another definition of movies – because they also move us emotionally.

Before Midnight, fitting its noctural theme, is a sadder, wiser film. Linklater and his actors/co-writers couldn’t replicate the ‘meet cute’ format a third time, so this takes the more difficult route of beginning with lead characters Jesse and Celine already together, and then breaking down the relationship. Only Toy Story 3 has taken similar risks in its storytelling, with similar results: a lump in the throat that a film is prepared to put much-loved characters through hell in order to make wider, profound points about the passing of time.

Jesse and Celine are now together, with kids of their own and a comfortable life… except Jesse has a son from his previous marriage keeping ties to America that he can’t shake off. The set-up for the new film’s real-time gambit is thus layered in irony, beginning with the son’s departure after a long holiday (thus rhyming with Jesse’s departure at the end of Sunrise), while the fact that the couple are in yet another European location, this time Greece, resonates with memories of their earlier hook-ups in Vienna and Paris.

And so they fall into old habits, talking endlessly about art and love and life, in those gloriously extended takes that Linklater uses to maintain a tangible connection between Hawke and Delpy. And yet… for the first half of the film they aren’t alone. The film’s first long conversation takes place in a car, with Jesse and Celine’s daughters framed in the centre, unobtrusive but undeniable interlopers. Similarly, their holiday home is littered with guests, drawing each away into gendered groups or providing bitter evidence of the different ages of mankind (loved-up youngsters, a bickering middle-aged couple, elderly people on their own) through which Jesse and Celine have lived or could end up living.

The omens aren’t good, and Linklater explodes the tensions that have accumulated over nine years of living together – and the ghosts of the nine years they didn’t live together – in a bravura argument, the best of its kind since Godard’s Le Mepris (and similarly brilliant in the use of space to bring together or separate the couple as the mood dictates). This is uncomfortable but thrilling to watch, and proof of Linklater’s ability to transcend notions of what cinema is. This might be a play, or a novel, or a film: in many respects doesn’t matter. What is important is the deep, dense observation capable of seeing both sides of the argument, and the humanism to let both develop organically.

Yet in one sense it does matter that Linklater has chosen cinema for this story, because cinema is time and time means everything here. It is eighteen years since Hawke and Delpy first developed these roles, nearly half of their lives; and that unfakeable richness (enhanced by the fact the actors have contributed to their dialogue) pours from the screen. How much of Hawke lives in Jesse, or of Delpy in Celine, we’ll never know (even a running gag about the perceived similarity of Celine to the heroine of Jesse’s novels can be read both ways), but there’s no denying that we’re watching the same people, but older.

The entire film is concerned with the extent to which people change or stay the same and Linklater’s attention to faces and gestures makes the themes manifest. The relationship is faltering because Jesse is arrogant and Celine angry, but think back and those traits were always there in the earlier films. Portents of the storm?  Or does it mean that traces of their earlier romance and spontaneity might still be there, too? There is enough weight here, intellectual and emotional, to demand another visit in nine years’ time.

Before Midnight is released on DVD on Monday 28th October.  Extras include a commentary and Q&A with Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater.

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