When Richard Linklater announced last autumn that he had secretly shot another sequel to Before Sunrise, his 1995 one-night-in-Vienna romance, it was difficult not to feel both excited and a little apprehensive. Before Sunset, the previous film in the series, had ended on such a perfect note—a heart-stopping ellipsis, one of cinema’s great non-endings—that taking the story any further seemed a bit like flirting with disaster. Wouldn’t it just be better to leave Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) hanging in the blissful moment, lost in song and dance and the probability of a missed flight? The answer, it’s a pleasure to report, is a resounding “no.” Just as swoon-worthy, and essential, as its predecessors, Before Midnight reveals the full scope of Linklater’s ambition. This is not just another stellar follow-up, but the latest entry in what’s shaping up to be a grand experiment—the earnest attempt to depict the life of a relationship onscreen, decade by increasingly tumultuous decade. In the process of justifying its own existence, Before Midnight redeems the very notion of sequels.
Ah, to be back in the company of these loquacious lovers, older and wearier now, but still blessed with the gift of gab. It’s been nine years, onscreen and off, since the American writer and his French dream girl reunited in Paris, and 18 since they met on a train in Vienna. Through a single, fluid tracking shot, Linklater reveals not only that the two are finally together—spoiler alert: Jesse missed his plane—but that they’ve been together long enough to have produced a pair of adorable moppets. The film begins at the end of a long, magical summer in Greece, spent at the coastal villa of a famous writer. Hawke’s novelist, who’s made his name writing about the events of Sunrise and Sunset, drops his teenage son (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) off at the airport. The boy is heading back to his mother’s place in Chicago, where he lives most of the year—a custody situation that weighs heavily on Jesse’s heart, and proves a catalyst for much of the tension to come.
As in Sunset, Linklater co-authored the screenplay with his two stars. Hawke and Delpy know their characters, now in their early 40s, like they know themselves. The lovers’ attitudes have shifted over the years: Jesse, whom Linklater introduced as a sharp-tongued boho cynic, has become a hopeless sap. Celine, meanwhile, has lost some of her youthful idealism; she’s now the more pragmatic of the two. Their banter, the main draw of this gloriously talky franchise, now has an undercurrent of antagonism. If Sunrise was about the euphoria of instant attraction, and Sunset was about the bittersweet allure of reigniting the flame, Midnight is about the tough, exasperating business of keeping a relationship alive. Interrogating the romantic notions of its predecessors, the film dares to ask what happens when the thrill of finding a soul mate wears off, and what’s left are the complications—of work, of middle age, of parenthood. In other words, those expecting another enchanted evening should brace for the epic showdown in Midnight’s thorny second half.
The highlight here is still the heady chatter. No one writes dialogue—witty, lightly philosophical, load-bearing but almost imperceptibly so—like this collaborating trio. Though there’s still a signature, scenic stroll, the movie spreads its pages upon pages of talk across a longer timeframe. One digressive chat, captured in a marathon-length master shot, occurs entirely in the front seat of an automobile; it’s a reminder of how much Linklater has in common with the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. (Midnight bears more than a passing resemblance to Certified Copy, especially during a sublime role-playing scene.) There’s also an Eric Rohmer-style wine-and-dine sequence, which for once has Jesse and Celine interacting with other characters—though, to be fair, their dinner-mates are essentially just older and younger versions of themselves. Here, in exchanges that flirt every so slightly with schematism, Linklater and his actors put the past and the present in communion.
Midnight has been called the highpoint of the series, which is both accurate and sort of beside the point. Though possessed of their own, unique merits, the films work best in concert, symbiotically feeding off of each other. Just as this latest entry draws much of its power from its relationship to Sunrise and Sunset, those previous chapters gain new poignancy in retrospective. At its most hopeful, Before Midnight posits nostalgia as a replenishing force, with memories of better times compensating for the rockiness of the here and now. What could be more romantic, the film asks, than loving someone for who they were, who they are, and who they could still become? 2022 can’t arrive soon enough.