I can remember in 2004 when there seemed to be an unsettling amount of nervousness and excitement leading up to the premiere of Before Sunset. I was seventeen at the time and had not become as well acquainted with indie films or smaller, art house projects that were gaining recognition which in turn meant I had not seen the original film, 1995's Before Sunrise, that spawned this follow-up nine years later. Even though I'd heard much about Before Sunset that year and recognized Ethan Hawke from countless other movies I never made it around to seeing what all the fuss was about. I still had not at the beginning of this year and then I began to hear that same level of unique excitement that started to build when it was rumored that director Richard Linklater and both Hawke and co-star Julie Delpy were hard at work scouting locations for a third installment in their relationship evaluation trilogy. As it turned out the stars and director weren't simply looking for locations, but had indeed shot the third installment and as I now try to expose myself to as many facets of film as possible I felt a responsibility to catch up on what I was missing and what everyone else was talking about. This has led to an experience where I've come to know Hawke's Jesse and Delpy's Celine over a matter of two decades in less than a few weeks. It is at some level unnerving as you can literally see the way in which people age and relationships change, while it isn't until this latest installment, Before Midnight, that we get to see the effects of these characters having been in a relationship for some time now. The fact this film would exist might confirm what eventually happened after the cliffhanger at the end of Before Sunset as I assume Linklater and his crew would realize they couldn't repeat themselves by simply having Jesse and Celine meet up for a few hours and catch up with one another again. Lucky for us, this is true in that Jesse never caught that plane and instead stayed and started a family with Celine which has now evolved into a much more recognizable relationship than the type of fantasy, star-crossed lovers ordeal the first two films presented. I understand the appeal of these films and have truly come to feel as if I know these people, which is good considering the content of the conversations they have this time around.

Celine (Julie Delpy) vacations in Greece with her twin daughters (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior).
Picking up in real time, nine years after the conclusion of Before Sunset, Before Midnight begins with Hawke's Jesse as he says goodbye to his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) after having spent the entire summer in Greece with he, Celine and their twin daughters. The scene is rather short, but it is a perfect opening so as not to indicate too much while giving the audience a necessary amount of information to represent the type of relationship Jesse has with his son. It is clear the relationship isn't as strained as we might expect given that Jesse did ultimately decide to give up his life with Hank and his mother after not returning from Paris, but it is also clear that Jesse still loves Hank with the passion he spoke of in the second chapter of this story. What is ultimately so intriguing about these films are the ideas that they truly are only slivers of these peoples lives. Snapshots even that, in the eyes of the beholders, might be easily forgotten, but it is easy to see that these moments captured in these three films are of the most critical and memorable days that these people would say ever occurred in their lives. They are, in essence, defining moments. It is when Jesse leaves the airport to join Celine on the car ride back to where they've been staying on vacation that we pick up not where we left off, but in a way right where we expected these two to be. In this single take that lasts ten-plus minutes we are not only caught up on what has been happening in the lives of Jesse and Celine, but we are also treated to what will form the crux of the film, the topic that will set-up the conversations and arguments that make this one of those defining moments. Like a three-act play the car ride is used for exposition and establishes where our main characters are currently at in their lives. Once the couple reaches their destination they have dinner outside and walk through the town which recalls the first two films, but all the while there is that "rising action" as little pieces of tension and bits of resentment are teased out across the always engaging conversation. It is when the film reaches a hotel room in which Celine and Jesse are supposed to have a nice getaway that the main tensions are brought to their most intense point and as much as this isn't like the first two films, I loved it just as much because it remains so completely honest.

For me, Before Midnight is the stand out of the series. I may, in fact, be saying this simply because it is the newest entry and the freshness of the viewing experience has yet to wear off, but the way in which it differentiates itself from the previous films allows it to feel more substantial. The two lead characters are no longer courting one another, they aren't in that honeymoon phase of the relationship and we'll never see what that was like, though the first two films lend us a fair picture of what we could have expected. Moving past those early stages we are introduced to a Celine and Jesse who don't discuss politics and religion as much as they talk about picking the kids up from school and who is making dinner. It is that aforementioned honesty that keeps this installment just as interesting while diverting from what made the first two so appealing. We are able to see the cracks in the relationship and though we'd like to believe that these two always get along or will always find some type of common ground whether they are speaking in philosophical terms or simply about the state of love, but Before Midnight shows that this isn't the truth even with the most honest and interesting of couples. That Jesse and Celine have always been up front about how they feel, about the myths that surround love and such things as destiny and fate while openly accepting the terms of human nature made it seem impossible they might ever encounter an issue they couldn't deal with. From the first time we meet the couple it is clear they have a unique bond with one another and still, even here a member of their dinner party recognizes the intrigue that carries Celine as much as it does Jesse's well-traveled writer. That such a couple could be tested by such common terms as "breaking-up" seems a ridiculous thought that shouldn't even be brought into the conversation. There are times each of the characters began to grate on my nerves with such pretentious talk and ultimately doing little more than trying to outsmart one other, but the fact the film is so expertly crafted with such a tight yet authentic script and effortless direction makes it a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, if it really is the conclusion.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine have one of their many intellectual conversations.
It would be interesting to see these films continue, painting a picture of the different stages of love as it changes over time. If we were to re-visit Jesse and Celine in another nine years as they enter their fifties, their girls going off to college and Hank having married and found a career. The couple will have essentially found themselves back to just the two of them, where they began but with an entirely new outlook on most of the things they discussed in Before Sunrise. I wouldn't mind at all if these films continued as they always paint an accurate picture of where Jesse and Celine are at in their lives, imperfections and all. As I said earlier, I was annoyed at certain points with the characters and the choices they made as far as what they said next, but this was more focused towards Delpy's Celine than it was Hawke's Jesse. It would be easy to say that I am simply being sexist here or that I'm intimidated by a strong woman, but I assure you this is not the case. Celine is a fine portrait of a woman who longs to let people know she is independent, a feminist if you will, but for some reason she is unable to pull herself away from Jesse. It is true she loves him, we want to believe she loves him, but there were moments throughout the film I truly thought she might be happier if she left (I did think this for Jesse as well, but the way Hawke personifies his character gives him a real torment over the decision). Delpy makes Celine almost cold-hearted at some points, as if she feels she cannot be fully open with Jesse which is a shame because that element of honesty is what made these two so unique and engaging to watch in the first place. It is as if she has this code she must stick to that has her being as independent as possible (why do you think they still aren't married? I guarantee you Jesse's asked) and she sticks to those guns through every argument; afraid that if she goes too far to the other side she will not become the person she envisioned herself to be when she was younger. That is a legitimate and understandable fear, but the way it comes across here is that she is nothing more than unhappy, frustrated, and ultimately feels empty. All of this while it is apparent Jesse truly wants to make this work and as smart and educated as he likes to sound he believes what he has with Celine is something as easily branded as true love. Maybe this perspective comes solely because I am a male, but as I watched this with my wife it was clear she thought Celine was a bit more drama than necessary as well. Granted, all of this only made the examination of the relationship all the more true, all the more complicated, and in the end, all the more romantic.  

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