(Richard Linklater, 2013)
Linklater's series of "Before" films have shadowed my life. I'm roughly the same age as the characters and it has been startling how accurately each film has zeroed in on the concerns and preoccupations of its chosen decade in the life of an educated Westerner. But more than that, these films have been incredibly articulate about the mood of each phase in a life - the way experience changes our perception of the world and of ourselves. Before Sunrise reflected the hopeful romanticism and yearning for adventure of the early 20s. The even better Before Sunset captured the slight disappointment; the sense of mistakes made and chances missed, of the 30s. And now, the dawning reality of family life is evident in Before Midnight.
It finds Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) at the end of a holiday at a villa in the Pelopennese in Greece where Jesse has been invited on a sort of writer's retreat. They have been a couple, it emerges, since the end of the last film, with a pair of beautiful twin girls and a family life in Paris. The plot here differs slightly from the first two films, in that we see them interact with various other characters in the second act here, engaged in a lengthy dinner-party chat with three other couples before they head off on a stroll into the nearby town for a romantic night in a hotel. That stroll begins as one of the conversations we saw in the other films and then turns much darker, as all the tensions and resentments of any couple in a long term relationship emerge when they reach the hotel.
It is, just like the other two instalments, fascinating, at times hilarious, moving in it's simple warm, recognisable humanity, and utterly brilliant. Linklater has never been an ostentatious director, and he just lets his actors do their thing, trusting that they (co-writers, remember) know these characters. The camera maintains a respectable distance and yet misses nothing. The script and cast miss nothing, either, making this trilogy of films perhaps the greatest I have ever seen at capturing all the complex dynamics of the way people actually talk.
The argument that forms the last half hour here is beautifully observed, a surging, constantly mutating string of insults, logical positions and negotiations familiar to anyone who has ever had an argument with a partner. And what is at stake is universal - Jesse and Celine are talking about their specific circumstances, but really they are intent on the question of love; if it lasts, what it means and what it gives, how it can be sustained and if we expect too much of it (all of this is made explicit in that early dinner party conversation).
They acknowledge that they are the great loves of one anothers lives, but the question is: is that enough? It may be at 24 and 32, but at 41?
One slight criticism may be that this film is a little more involved with their shared life. In the first two films we learned about them as they learned about one another, but here they argue about incidents they have been through together, air gripes based on old events. But that is a small detail; even those scenes are ludicrously interesting, and Hawke and Delpy make it all work, make it all feel real. These characters feel like old friends to me, and that warmth is a key part of how these films work.
But they wouldn't work without these two actors or that connection with the issues that are relevant in the lives of people like them.
They do work, and then some.