Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)


Sometimes you expect a movie to be a certain type of experience, and then you go and see it and find that you were exactly right. My mild opinion about Before Midnight doesn’t surprise me at all because I feel the same way about the first two films in its series, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. These are neatly designed films about a chance encounter on a train in Vienna and the extrapolating, now decades-spanning outgrowth of it; the films function chiefly as a showcase for actors Julie Delpy (brilliant) and Ethan Hawke (okay), who also participated in developing the characters, scripts and dialogue for the second and third films. While I like these movies (and this one in particular has beautiful acting and stunning Greek locations, bringing back memories of the facets of Certified Copy that I loved despite not caring for it overall), I’ve never felt as deep a connection to them as most of my friends, for who knows what complicated life-related reasons. But my curiosity wouldn’t let me stay away from this one. Like everyone else, I wanted to know where Jesse and Céline’s lives had taken them.

I’m glad I saw the film, but I’m struck by how differently my worldview seems from that espoused by the series and especially this very philosophical (final?) entry, even though parts of it ring true: life really is a series of moments, for instance, and it’s best to be realistic about concepts of permanence and responsibility for another person’s happiness. I found the movie a little overly pessimistic, but it certainly seemed to come from a real and highly specific place. My tempered reaction to the films themselves translates, by necessity, to a tempered reaction to these two characters as fully embodied and/or three-dimensional creations, in which guise I find them to be mostly impressive but also to have a number of acting-exercise holes and faults.

It’s funny that Céline frequently mocks Jesse as a lunkheaded, self-regarding American. I feel that it’s precisely because this is an American film that it cannot avoid its vital sensibility of love being visible only through a smog of constant fuckups and misunderstandings. We’re the ones who so fervently believe that happiness is not entertaining. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy’s vision of a complicated, fading relationship on a foundation of momentary this-is-crazy-why-am-I-doing-this lust is less nuanced than Scenes from a Marriage or, far more relevantly, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation — which gives the lie to this film’s supposed painful realism. It arrives at it, with trad cynicism, by demonizing both of its characters, turning us against them both, while A Separation did the exact opposite and demonstrated no easy answer, no quick lay, no rhythmic banter.

Not that the rhythmic banter isn’t charming, but that’s actually the crux of my problem — there may be something observant in the way that a conversation here spirals out of control into a vicious argument, but the underlying warmth of the couple’s interactions earlier on make the finale seem inconsistent and the ending desperate. I’d be actually more interested in a film about two people getting along and dealing with change while not at each other’s throats. I don’t expect sunshine and brightness, but I wouldn’t mind seeing something I haven’t seen before… and the opening airport and (especially) car scenes are more fascinating to me than anything that happens in the latter half of the picture (at least until Delpy mysteriously puts words into her partner’s mouth in the car, setting the disaster to come into motion).

I think the main thing — let’s just dive into spoilers here, shall we? — is that for the whole last thirty minutes, a blistering hotel room confrontation that constitutes the most crucial part of the film, I hated them both. He really is aloof and insulting and dismissive, and she really is being unreasonable and jumping to conclusions, and one problem feeds the other. I reckon I’d prefer a movie wherein a couple was arguing but I loved and/or understood them both, and the conflict would therefore be more excruciating and would come from a place of deeper empathy. And the very end felt enormously cheap to me, with Hawke’s put-on romantics just coming across as too-little too-late hollow compensation, but these are highly specialized, specific reactions based on my personality — I can think of few movies that are seemingly designed to dredge up one’s personal hangups like this.

I suppose this may be some people’s lives and that I’m at a handicap cause it’s not mine. But I cringed a little at the screenwriterly business with the archetypes around the table representing different facets and opinions of love, all too on-the-nose, and not only do I find all the fashionable pessimism a little trite, I think this is in fact a pretty convincing portrait of a terrible relationship, one from which all parties should run away and never come back. All that sniping and sarcasm and bullshit in the hotel? Nothing’s worth it, man; it’s mutual abuse. But I’m younger than these characters and you might well regard me as having no clue what I’m talking about. (It’s not irrelevant that the biggest issues in the film occur because the characters are parents, a world that is inevitably unknown to me. That doesn’t explain why I felt just as distant from Hawke’s schmoozing and Delpy’s almost comical patience in Before Sunrise, still.) But I have been inside, and have witnessed, rotten and toxic relationships; in this way, the movie does lead back to something inside me, which is that I did hear those arguments, and those slammed doors, and those personal catastrophes, and maybe that’s why I recoil from such things in movies as well as real life, which added, I suppose, to both my discomfort and admiration. (Noah Baumbach’s shitty-attitude characters still ring truer for me, exponentially.)

I guess at bottom, I find this all compelling but not particularly “real” or emotionally honest — the two leads are portrayed so inconsistently they seem like ideas more than people, except when they’re gently mocking one another and are visibly just a couple with a history. My favorite moment in the series remains the forced separation that ends Sunrise; that feeling I believed. And I felt the last moments of Sunset. All I felt here was the need to call my fiancee immediately afterward and thank her for the fact that we are not these people. And for the times she’s done my laundry, which I never believed was the parlance of magical fairies.

[The basis of this review is a discussion I had about this film at a message board which shall remain nameless — with many thanks to my friends whose comments prompted a lot of the above thoughts.]

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