BEFORE MIDNIGHT directed by Richard Linklater, written by Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, with Hawke, Delpy, Ariane Labed and Athina Rachel Tsangari. A Mongrel Media release. 109 minutes. Opens Friday (June 7). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNNNN
Before Midnight may be the best picture of the year - and it shouldn't even exist.
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy could have left well enough alone, especially after the high-wire act that was their first sequel, Before Sunset. But dammit, they've done it again.
The three know and love their characters as much as we do; they reveal their hearts and protect their integrity. And Linklater is skilled and smart enough as a storyteller to keep raising the stakes each time around. Jesse and Celine keep moving forward, and we get to watch.
Before Midnight picks up nine years after Before Sunset, which chronicled their Paris reunion nine years after their stroll through Vienna in Before Sunrise. (Spoiler: Jesse did indeed miss that plane.) Now it's the last day of a summer in Greece with their twin daughters, and Jesse's feeling torn that Henry, his son from a previous marriage, isn't living with them as well.
Celine picks up on this conflict and begins an extremely intense conversation about where Jesse's true loyalties lie. It's not a fight, mind you. That comes later.
Before Midnight does something neither of its predecessors could attempt: it shows Jesse and Celine as a couple in the world. Linklater shoots it all in long, considered takes, and digital cinema lets him run the camera longer than ever. One shot runs something like 15 minutes, another at least seven or eight. Hawke and Delpy are so completely at ease with each other that you stop seeing them as performers and just watch them as people.
Over the course of an afternoon and evening, they have dinner with their Greek hosts, take a long walk from the villa to a hotel in town, try to fool around and wind up having an epic argument - the sort of fight that can only happen when intimacy is accidentally weaponized. The last movement of Before Midnight is as harrowing as any horror movie, because we know these people so well. Linklater and his actors don't hold back. My heart was in my throat in the last few minutes, partly because I had no idea what would happen next and partly because I was terrified Linklater would make a misstep at the last minute.
But of course he doesn't. After all, he loves Jesse and Celine even more than we do.