Does Before Midnight dodge the hardest part of relationships?

Does Before Midnight dodge the hardest part of relationships?

Before Midnight isn’t just a gripping continuation of a great romantic saga; it’s a more mature work than Before Sunrise or even Before Sunset. Instead of giving us two people falling in love—which is, for most of us, the easy part—it gives us two people trying desperately to hold onto love after years of being together. That’s the real test, after all, and it’s why Hollywood shows virtually no interest in life after marriage. In the last half of Before Midnight, Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse really test one another: They hole up in a fancy, stifling hotel room (paid for by friends eager for them to have a romantic getaway) and bitterly vent nine years’ worth of frustration and resentment. This blowout is right up there with the ones in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and Contempt, making it one of the most epic and intimate lovers’ quarrels in movie history.

Something nagged at me about Before Midnight’s first half, however. This is where we catch up with Celine and Jesse and learn how their lives changed since getting together on that fateful day in Paris nine years earlier. The movie begins at an airport in Greece, where Jesse—his face more deeply lined than before, his belly more round—reluctantly sends his visiting teenage son back home to America and his mother. Afterward, Jesse gloomily shuffles back to Celine—also looking noticeably more care-worn—who’s waiting outside in the car with their sleeping twin daughters. The family, we learn, is staying with one of Jesse’s writer friends for the summer, and the next 15 minutes or so are spent simply riding along with them as they head back to the friend’s picturesque villa. That’s when I noticed it: As in the previous two films, Celine and Jesse can’t stop talking to each other. Though the talk is more world-weary and disillusioned than before, it still flows like a geyser and jumps from topic to topic at whiplash speed.

And all I could think was, “Really? After nine years and two kids?” I don’t mean to suggest couples have nothing left to say to one another after a few years together, just that they tend to run out of fresh anecdotes. In real life, when Celine regales Jesse with the story of her father and the cats, Jesse would interrupt and say, “You told me this one,” and Celine would reply, “Oh, sorry,” and the car would go quiet. (And after spending all day in a cramped vehicle with two kids, they probably wouldn’t mind that quiet one bit.) The truth is, most of us have a finite reservoir of stories, and one of the challenges of being in a long-term relationship is learning to do without them—learning to live, in essence, without conversational crutches.

The biggest challenge of coupledom is more than just story exhaustion, of course—it’s overfamiliarity, and the potential for boredom that comes with it. When you’ve lived with a person long enough, the whole “what’s new?” impetus for conversation dries up, because there’s rarely much “new” beyond whatever might have happened at work that day. (And when you travel with a person there’s even less.) Granted, Celine and Jesse spend just as much time re-hashing old conversations as they do starting new ones, but the tone of their talk makes it all sound new. Aren’t they just a little too much the same youthful chatterboxes of old, especially for a couple supposedly having problems? As we’ll find out later, Celine and Jesse have bottled-up issues galore, and when a couple bottles up issues, they tend to bottle up conversation as well. It could be that the two actors were just so excited at being reunited—with one another, with their characters, with director Richard Linklater—that they let too much of that excitement seep into their performances.

Then again, not all couples deal with problems the same way, and healthy chatter doesn’t necessarily indicate a healthy relationship. Plus, some people are just talkative by nature, regardless of what’s going on under the surface. (Celine and Jesse certainly proved themselves the chattiest of Cathys in the prior two films.) But I’d argue that the easy banter in the first half of Before Midnight slightly undermines—or at least leavens—the tensions of the second half. While Celine and Jesse’s battle royale felt pretty brutal and heartrending to me, I mostly found it ruefully funny. I laughed in recognition—at Celine’s uncanny ability to read the worst into everything Jesse says, at Jesse’s passive-aggressive tendency to transfer the burden of decision-making onto Celine. I was able to laugh, I guess, because I never really felt Celine and Jesse could (or should) break up. I mean, when a couple still has as much to say to one another as these two do after nine years, can there really be that much wrong? The fight felt to me more like a long overdue clearing of the air than a potential relationship-ender. 

Yes, I know, it’s a movie. What are they supposed to do, sit in stony silence for minutes on end just to prove relationships are hard? Answer: They could, but we have Romanian films for that. Ultimately, the talk in Before Midnight is so enjoyable and/or compelling that it’d be foolish to change a thing, and, in any case, much of what I’m talking about here can be reasonably brushed off as dramatic license. But if asked to name the most realistic dramatizations of relationship entropy, I suspect Before Midnight wouldn’t be the first film I’d mention. (I’d save it for a discussion of total relationship meltdown.) 

Instead, I’d probably mention Sarah Polley’s thoughtful buzz-kill Take This Waltz, in which Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen work like mad to convince themselves the fire hasn’t died, to the point of behaving like lovey-dovey barf bags. (I couldn’t stand them half the time, but it’s clear this is part of the point—they can barely stand their behavior either.) The two honestly love each another, but that love doesn’t seem to be enough to get them through the routine hours and days. There’s a memorable scene in which the two go out for a rare fancy dinner, and Williams practically has to beg Rogen to make conversation. “What is there to talk about?” he asks. “We know everything.”

There’s also Jennifer Westfeldt’s recent Friends With Kids, in which Westfeldt and Adam Scott try to avoid the relationship doldrums by skipping the relationship altogether. Instead, they’ll just be good friends who happen to share a kid. Their opposite numbers are two struggling married couples: Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd, who have a healthy sense of humor about how overfamiliar they’ve grown, and Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm, who don’t. The movie’s not perfect, but you won’t see a more blistering take on relationship entropy than the mid-film dinner scene, in which a drunken Hamm lashes out at Scott and his date (Megan Fox) for believing they can avoid his fate. “If you think Titty McTittinheimer here—Greatest Fuck Of Your Life—isn’t going to make you bored as shit one day, then you are fucking wrong,” he bellows. 

Or, if you’d prefer a more light-hearted take, you could do worse than the underrated Tina Fey-Steve Carell vehicle Date Night. The best jokes in it are about the state of Fey and Carell’s marriage, which, despite their best efforts, has devolved into grunts, stares, and perpetually deferred lovemaking. This being a Hollywood comedy, everything is fixed by a wild night of mistaken identities, car chases, and mob shootouts. It’s a shallow movie, but there’s something legitimately lovely going on in the early scene where Fey and Carell attempt to make restaurant conversation. Instead of straining like Williams and Rogen, they simply acknowledge their overfamiliarity and engage in silly, good-natured imitations of the people around them. They make having nothing new to say seem kind of freeing.

But to get back to Before Midnight, one last thought: Could it be that Celine and Jesse’s eager banter isn’t as healthy as it looks? That it’s actually a liability rather than a virtue? As the film goes on, it’s hard not to notice that the two have a tendency to talk their way into fights that otherwise might not have happened. Celine, in particular, has an almost compulsive need to talk, talk, talk until she’s arrived at some sort of conflict (prompting Jesse to declare her “mayor of Crazy Town” at one point). Maybe this effortless, run-on yakking—which would appear to be the marker of a strong relationship—is just Celine and Jesse sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

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