The romantic comedy genre is a landfill. Full of moldy clichés, Kate Hudson’s rotting talent and Matthew McConaughey’s t-shirts, most romantic comedies are disingenuous attempts at exploring the intangible connection between two people. They’re typically brain-dead endeavors with little insight into what actually drives a romantic relationship. Inexplicably, despite aggressive proclamations that Hollywood can’t produce a single idea that isn’t a retread or a sequel, people eat this drivel up. All the while, small, intimate films like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset fly under the radar, appreciated only by those willing to activate their brain and heart. I apologize in an advance if I come across as a bit uppity. It’s not really my style, but Richard Linklater’s Before series is honestly one of the most searing, beautifully rendered love stories told in the history of film. Even if that last statement is merely me vomiting hyperbole, it undoubtedly holds a great deal of weight when most contemporary romantic comedies come to mind. Of course, there are people who are going to fall hopelessly in love with the likes of a Failure to Launch, but what makes the Before series so enchanting is its revealing explorations of love, and its many complications through naturalistic dialog and varying philosophical musings.
Part of the reason both films mercilessly invade our soul is because of its voyeuristic vibe. With plenty of long takes, the camera follows our two protagonists, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), as they profusely converse while walking through Vienna and Paris. Unknowing of our presence, it’s as if we’re peering in on an intimate undertaking. In Before Sunrise, both are falling for one another but disparate roads paint their romance as a missed connection. Nine years later in Before Sunset, the two reconnect in Paris. Awkward at first, they reminisce of the one fleeting night they shared in Vienna, and the life together they likely missed. Like a great sequel, Before Sunset perfectly builds off its predecessor by evolving the characters, raising the stakes, and leaving us wanting more. Thankfully, albeit nine years later, Richard Linklater satiates our appetite for more time with Jesse and Celine through Before Midnight. As we come to know, Jesse and Celine have finally worked past the varying handcuffs that constricted their relationship, and are now together with two children (twin girls) of their own design. At long last, these two long-lost lovers commit to each other after years of quietly waiting for a dividing ocean to shrink in stature. Unfortunately, like most couples who age together, Jesse and Celine are finding cracks in their bond while away on a family vacation in Greece.
Through conversations with a handful of other lovers, and through quaint dialog driven strolls of their own, Jesse and Celine impose on one another questions revolving around the longevity of love, death’s impact on a relationship, and the attributes that breathlessly strangle a once invigorating romance. Even though its narrative structure is relatively similar to its predecessors, Before Midnight is a darker, more claustrophobic film. If Before Sunrise and Sunset are hopeful tales of a blossoming love, Before Midnight is its antithesis; showing love is fallible, and capable of mimicking a wilting flower. Even though the conversations trend towards the heavier, more somber aspects of a relationship, especially in the ending where humorous observations mutate into bitter attacks, Before Midnight still possesses an uncanny level of revelatory and funny dialog. Despite the film taking place in a country as picturesque as Greece, our attention is wholly dedicated to the words and thoughts that poetically slip out of Jesse and Celine’s mouths. Every sentence, every word, and every laugh is authentic. The screenplay worms itself into the brains of its characters, effortlessly excavating their neuroses, their ideals and their fears.
Giving the ink more credence are the performances of Hawke and Delpy, who, I also must note, helped write the screenplay. After spending three films in the skins of these characters, Hawke and Delpy are transcendent. One reason why the Before series feels organic and so naturalistic is because of Hawke and Delpy’s innate ability to build characters that you can seemingly encounter walking down the street; people who are at once embroiled with doubt and buoyant with hope. Even more to the point, Hawke and Delpy possess a highly contagious chemistry that few leading couples could even dream to concoct. Admittedly, the sincerity of the screenplay and its players reflect the challenges I’ve faced via love’s unpredictable course, and I’m sure most of you have encountered the same issues. Because of this, Before Midnight is the rare kind of film that permeates beyond its characters; it ignites a flame within. Unforgettable, sobering, and ultimately romantic, Before Midnight shows us the impact of great filmmaking. If only there were more characters around like Jesse and Celine to eradicate the stench of the garbage constantly set before us.