' ' Cinema Romantico: Before Midnight

Monday, June 03, 2013

Before Midnight

The "Before" films - that is, "Before Sunrise" (1995), "Before Sunset" (2004) and now "Before Midnight" - are known more for their incessantly free flowing conversational tone than their visual flair. The first two films were set, respectively, in Vienna and Paris and the third is set on the coast of Greece, and while scenic and historical locations are glimpsed they are never so much the point as what is being said in front of or around them.

Those first two films, however, did have one discernible motif. The first closed by re-visiting in quick successive shots each place the principal characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), had visited while orating. The second opened by displaying in the same quick, successive shots each place the duo was on the verge of visiting while orating. When "Before Midnight" finally conforms to this pattern it is fairly late in the proceedings, post-intensive argument in a semi-generic hotel room, and Jesse glances around at the few places in that room where they have just been. Unlike the preceding two films this is not a romanticized viewpoint - this seems to say: "Oh. A bunch of crap." Well, that's about right. What does life (love) eventually devolve into but a bunch of crap?

When last we saw Jesse and Celine, nine years ago in the capital of France where he had come on tour for the book he wrote about their one night together in the capital of Austria nine years before that, we were left wondering if he had abandoned his plane flight home to his wife and son to hook up with the Parisian woman for whom he never stopped pining. He did. And as "Before Midnight" opens he is sending his son on a plane flight back to the States after spending the summer in Greece with him. And with Celine. And with his and Celine's twin daughters.

The first time Jesse and Celine have a side-by-side conversation in their first film it is on a tram and they are sitting oh so close together, that way you sit when you mysteriously feel that much more of an electrical charge from almost touching as you do from actually touching. It is sweetly sexual. The first time Jesse and Celine have a side-by-side conversation in the third film it is in the family car, across a seat divider, buckled in, their sleeping twins visible in the backseat.

In other words, Jesse and Celine, the epitome of romance for a certain portion of my generation, are just another couple with a couple children and a minivan.

They have taken a holiday in Greece on a writer's retreat. This is crucial because these films are all about Jesse and Celine talking, and while they do talk on their minivan ride back from the airport, these early scenes are also very much about others talking. In fact, an elongated discussion at a dinner table, effortlessly shifting between philosophy, humor and affairs of the heart, features six other characters - the older author hosting the retreat and his companion, an older couple and younger couple - earning as many words as Jesse and Celine. The film, subtly, wonders how much our Gen X Sweethearts have to say to each other.

Oh, but they will converse, fear not, first on a long, seemingly unbroken walk to the town where a hotel room has been reserved and paid for in honor of their last night before returning home to France. This dialogue most closely resembles the previous films but then.....they watch the sun set, and it is, tellingly, the one time Jesse does not actually have some pithy, inane joke to tell. Even he seems able to sense what is coming.

The back half of "Before Midnight", in fact, recalls the whole of "Carnage", Roman Polanski's comedic and venomous exercise in claustrophobia. We watch, humored and horrified, as our dearest Jesse and Celine, the couple we know and love so well now seem to know each other so well that their love has gone lukewarm, snipe and pick and plead and confess and defend as if rationality and irrationality existed on the same plain. It is a back and forth as artfully drawn as their most whimsical powwows of the past, but darker and stained by years spent in each other's company rather than hours. Hawke's voice is noticeable for its gravel. Delpy, bravely, bares her breasts not in the form of erotica but to illustrate, for lack of a better term, Long Term Relationship Nudity - you know, that point when you barely notice your better half is nude.

Even more, the film, to its immense credit, takes no sides by allowing each side to make its own alternate version of sense and nonsense. It does not play so much as He Said/She Said as They Say. The things we think and do not say? Jesse and Celine say them. It's as if trying so hard to be selfless inevitably unlocks selfish feelings.

The film's final scene borders on a moment of reckoning, but in a much different way than the first two. The concept of the "midnight" of the title, in fact, is never addressed - as in, what happens at or after midnight? This underscores how time has sped up in their lives to such a degree that all its mile markers have just sort of blurred together. Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight, rinse, cycle, repeat. And Jesse, perhaps in a fit of desperation, attempts to both turn back that ever advancing clock and answer one of Celine's earlier queries by indulging in a bit of make believe. She resists. And resists. And finally, gives in.

Is it an affectionate moment? I honestly don't think so. It seems to me they have learned the depressing truth of how so many unions, like it or not, are sustained - pretend.


Derek Armstrong said...

I'm saddened that it seems pretty clear that the movie did not live up to your (exceedingly high) expectations. (With those expectations, how could it?) The fact that there's a post I have yet to read called "The Bitter Aftertaste of Before Midnight" suggests that it hasn't improved with time to think about it more.

However, I suspect that part of the reason we (the royal we) react the way we do to Before Midnight has to do with having shared or not shared the experiences Celine and Jesse have had. Both of the first two movies were essentially uncomplicated romance movies -- complicated, of course, by outside factors (having to leave, having another family), but not complicated by anything else in their present tense of that moment. In both movies it was just them to engage with each other. You've had that experience already, and you can relate to it.

The experience you haven't had, that I've had, is marriage. And though I missed the straightforward romanticism of those first two movies, I felt myself nodding along with this movie more than I did the other two. (Though I still like Sunrise better.) The core of these movies, as you point out, is the talkiness -- but more than that, their bread and better is the accuracy of the observations contained in their rich and meaty dialogue. I wonder if by not having the experience of being married and having kids, not as many of those landed for you as for me -- and that they made you feel the movie was sadder and more dire than I found it to be. I know that I have arguments with my wife and things sometimes feel very rote, but I also know that we can still "pretend" in the right ways -- and that a long-term, low-excitement relationship can be as wonderful as it is sometimes mundane.

I'm wondering if maybe to be the truly ideal viewer of the Before series, you have to have more or less followed in lock step with these characters and the events in their lives. Let's hope one of them doesn't get liver cancer in the next installment, because I really don't want to go there.

Nick Prigge said...

Thoughtful response, Vance. Thank you.

Your primary point is a good one, and one I have actually wondered a little bit about in the wake of seeing it. And I think it's fair. Like you say, so much of why I cherish those first two films is that relatable perspective and how closely I feel like my own personal philosophy aligns with theirs. I mean, they're still both incredibly well done films, apart from all that, but obviously it's those personal details that set them apart for people like us.

I still thought Before Midnight was really well done but perhaps several years down the road when (hopefully?) I've crossed that bridge I can revisit it and see how it feels.