This is the romantic reality. When it is easy, it is easier than we imagined. It is holding hands and quick kisses and looks of longing. It is conversation that flows easily, breathlessly, without a moment of pause. It is laughter. But when it is not easy, when everything is not just the first time, the true reality of the complexities of a contemporary romance set in.
This is the premise behind Richard Linklater’s latest film, Before Midnight, the third look at the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) after Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. In this latest film, the two are finally together. Whereas in the first film they just met and in the second film they were reunited, in this latest, we learn that they took the major leap, altered their lives, and ended up committed to each other. Along the way, they also had twin daughters.
The movie is not a response to the previous films. Rather it works as a complete end to the series. Although each “Before” film can stand on its own, they work best as a complete trilogy on how love “works.” I enjoyed the films originally because they were light and visually lush and aurally-rich. The dialogue jumped out of their mouths. The European settings were vibrant and enticing. The characters felt real in that I saw them in couples I knew and admired from afar. Audiences want to follow them because they are us. They are what we see for ourselves when we are young, when we want to fall in love, and when we actually do.
Prior to watching Before Midnight, I re-watched Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Watching them back-to-back further unraveled the singular narrative writers Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke aimed to tell.
Before Sunrise is about the headyness of something new. The movie takes place before sunrise, before a new day. Before Sunset is about the lust of something real. Jesse has to fly back to the United States. Celine says, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” Jessie replies, “I know.” Those unbelievably heavy last lines in that film were the cliffhanger to what we now know: they end up together.
Before Midnight then is about the frustrations of something here and now, in the real world. It is well thought out and reflects the realities of love and romance. The original films show how easy it is to fall in love. This latest shows what happens after the love has settled. Real life and relationships are challenging and messy. There are consequences to our actions.
It is telling that the film opens in a Greek airport as Jesse leaves his son, Hank, from his original marriage. Their relationship is loving, but strained. It is not just about his age (pre-high school), but about the situation they’ve found themselves in. From the perspective of his son, his parents are divorced. One is (supposedly) an alcoholic and the other lives across the world with his girlfriend and two daughters. This is a complicated reality, though one that is not unfamiliar. His father found love on a different continent. For Jesse, he found love while also not being there, literally, for his son. What we want and what the world gives us are two different things.
Like the previous films, a beautiful setting (this time, a Greek island) is used in the first half of the film to frame the giddiness of love. In contrast, a cold, harsh hotel room becomes the background for a heated argument. Under the glare of reality and flawed humanity, reality is not as pleasant. Loveliness is fleeting.
It is nice to see them age. They are literally not driven by youth. In youth we find the desire to view the world and our interactions within it with the strength of naivete. Taking the films as a whole, their youth represents innocence and hopefulness. As they age, as wrinkles set in and forms mature, so too does the reality of building and maintaining a relationship. Life happens: with us, near us, and to us.