Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: "Before Midnight"

Director: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 108 minutes

When one thinks of memorable film trilogies, the default answers are often of the epic variety. From The Godfather to The Lord of the Rings, the cinematic trilogy is often reserved for stories that aim for a sense of grandeur. Occasionally smaller films will merit a lone sequel, but you'd be hard pressed to find many noteworthy examples. However, with the release of Before Midnight, Richard Linklater's trilogy of conversation-led romances has cemented itself as one of the all-time greats, up there with those sprawling sagas about gangsters and hobbits. 

Once again, Linklater turns his attention on Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jessie (Ethan Hawke). Yet where Before Sunrise and Before Sunset dealt with the couple's initial courtship, Midnight takes them into less blissful territory. Traces of the carefree students from the first film still remain, but, as the opening sequence shows us, time catches up with everyone. Jessie struggles to accept his fractured relationship with his son from his first marriage. Celine, on the other hand, struggles with how Jessie's actions are upsetting the otherwise stable nature of their current union, which includes two young girls. Celine and Jessie first met on a train, where they both had flexibility in their destinations. This time, however, the couple has to drive with their daughters in tow, always with some purpose or obligation, even on their vacation in Greece.

Even the opening conversations, which still have their share of charm and humor, seem mundane. It can be a little off-putting, but it ultimately makes sense. There's little in the way of discovery for these characters, now in their forties. Every now and then one of them digs up a story they had previously withheld, but it's still in the context of a relationship that has long left the honeymoon phase. Yet, despite the mundane quality of some of the film's early stretches, Linklater (along with Delpy and Hawke as co-writers) still has the ability to capture the central duo's relationship with equal doses of charm and honesty. 

Despite the familiarity that came with Before Sunset, one could plausibly criticize the film as being almost the exact same as its predecessor. Celine and Jessie only had one day with each other before they reunited for the first time, which hardly makes for a dense relationship. With Before Midnight, however, Linklater has finally given his duo a chance to exist on screen after years together. Small pleasures remain, but they lack the freshness that came before. The couple used to try and discover things about each other. Now they muse about how intimately they know each other, warts and all. Less romantic? Certainly, but it's also more grounded and mature, which is entirely appropriate.

And despite all of the time that has passed, it's still a pleasure to watch these two interact. The biggest challenge of the series is that it's grounded in the interactions of two people (though Midnight does include some other couples in the first half). Yet while Celine and Jessie are feeling strain in their relationship, their one-on-one interactions are as dynamic as ever, even as they come tinged with bittersweetness, and even outright hostility. For the first time, we have to experience them deal with more legitimate problems of love and family, the kind that can do legitimate damage to a couple's relationship. The usual issues are scattered throughout the film - work vs. family, wants vs. needs, etc... - yet in the hands of Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke, their banality feels fresh. Even as the film takes the couple to their lowest emotional points, there remains a liveliness to both performances, even with the added years and lines on both actors' faces. 

Before Midnight is possibly (I'm still not entirely certain) the weakest of the three films, yet it affords the two leads the room for their best performances. Framed often in long tracking shots, whether in the car or amid ancient Greek ruins, watching these two bounce off of each other has lost none of its appeal. The thornier emotional territory may put a damper on the pure charm of Sunrise and Sunset, but it also provides its own ample dramatic dividends. The most rewarding aspect of this trait is to see how Celine has taken on some of Jessie's personality (and vice versa), while still staying true to the character from the first two films. It doesn't quite reach the level of the searing conflicts in Blue Valentine or A Separation, but it doesn't really need to. Linklater has found a level of emotional strife that is perfectly in sync with the feel of the previous two films, as well as Celine and Jessie's on-screen chemistry.

Linklater's knack for pacing remains intact as well, and, barring the scenes with other couples present, Before Midnight remains as sharp and tight as the other two films. Though it runs close to 108 minutes, by the time the conclusion arrives it feels as though it's barely been more than an hour or so. To get a little nit-picky, Before Midnight might segue into its lovely conclusion almost too quickly. Given the nature of what precedes said ending, it feels as though a longer denouement is in store (and even required). In a story so beautifully handled over the course of three films (each roughly a decade apart), the choice to rush so suddenly into a finale creates a sense of narrative whiplash in an otherwise smooth ride that is well worth taking.

Grade: A-

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