Calling it now: Before Midnight is my favourite film of 2013.
Although I’m intrigued by upcoming technical masteries (Gravity) and festival darlings (12 Years A Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis), I just cannot imagine a film coming along this year that is able to capture the truth of human existence and relationships in all their beauty and ugliness as effortlessly and simply as Before Midnight.
Before Midnight is the third (and hopefully not last) film in Richard Linklater’s Before series, following 1995’s Before Sunrise where an American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), convinces a beautiful French stranger on a train, Celine (Julie Delpy) to disembark and spend the day with him in Vienna, and 2004’s Before Sunset where Jesse and Celine reunite in Paris after Jesse publishes a book regarding the couple’s night together in Vienna. Before Midnight sees the couple, now together for 9 years with twin daughters and a son from Jesse’s previous marriage, spending their last evening of a summer vacation in Greece.
Like the previous films, Before Midnight is talky and intelligent but unpretentious in its depiction of relationships as it follows Celine and Jesse’s discourse over a long Grecian evening. This represents what may as well be their first proper chance for conversation since they had children together. The film wisely departs from the two previous films by introducing other characters to bounce off, lest we get tired of Hawke and Delpy’s nattering. Though all the characters are well read and highly loquacious, the conversations are so breezily unforced that they remind you of every great conversation you’ve ever had, perfect in their awkward realness and warmth and humour.
The script is shrewd and economical in meeting the challenge of filling in new audiences on the events of the previous two films, while bringing old fans up to date with what has transpired between Jesse and Celine since he missed his plane in Paris nine years ago. Without the hacky conventions of voice over or flashback, the film manages to fill us in while remaining true to character and situation and not drifting too deeply into ‘Exposition time’ dialogue.
The film is also very brave in the way it depicts its central twosome. Stars Hawke and Delpy worked on the script along with director Richard Linklater, something they also did for Before Sunset. In this sense, the film is very much two sided in the way it frames its conversations (and arguments) between Jesse and Celine. On this point, I think the film (and Delpy) is very brave in creating a relationship where one character, Jesse, is more wholly likeable than the other, Celine.
Obviously I can’t be objective about this. Not only am I a male human – no it’s true – but I also share Jesse’s constant sarcasm and sometimes inappropriate sense of humour. Suffice it to say, I connect rather strongly with Jesse. And while I also connect and greatly sympathise with Celine, the film is not above making her into a more deeply flawed character whose particular traits and strength of character are based around her strong sense of self and ideals, unlike Jesse for whom many of his strengths emanate from his likeability and charm. Having said that, the film strictly avoids turning Celine into an unsympathetic shrewish, Parisian feminist caricature, despite some moments where she becomes frustrating, like her very inappropriate announcement during dinner that Jesse is forcing her to choose between her marriage and her dream job and her constant portentous insistence that their marriage is about to crumble.
The sometimes uncomfortably realistic arguments and bitterness are made more palatable by Christos Voudouris’ sun-dappled cinematography that makes the most of Greece’s natural beauty. The film can’t help but have a slight European travelogue quality to its visuals, but the beauty is never unnecessary or cheap. They are used to highlight the spirit of the conversations and frame the mindset of the characters. It’s telling that the most scathing argument takes place in a generic hotel room while the more wistful, nostalgic conversations take place at dusk on a beautiful walk to the hotel surrounded by ruins, fields and the odd goat (cos, you know….it’s Greece). We can’t deny that the beautiful European settings of each film provide a lovely sense of escapism, but Linklater never lets the settings distract from the truth of the characters and each moment they share.
It’s hard to overstate the value of this fantastic trilogy (so far) of films. Like a fictional version of Michael Apted’s Up series, the films, though fantastic individually, carry a great sense of verisimilitude and emotional weight from the 9 year breaks between each film, culminating in a cinematic event, which in its scope, consistency and quality is a true rarity. Each of the trilogy carry a slightly different vibe: Sunrise carried a 90s slacker mythicism, Sunset had a no-frills, in-the-moment European art film vibe, while Midnight has a warmer nostalgic glow but is also tied down with the weariness of a domestic drama; and together they make a truly beautiful set of films that are utterly endearing in their humanity, warmth and their depiction of a relationship that is both truthful yet eminently watchable – and re-watchable.
Overall Grade: 9 stray goats of European nostalgia.