Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” was the most deliciously romantic film of the 1990s. A young, devilishly handsome Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets bohemian beauty Celine (Julie Delpy) while both are on a train bumming around Europe; he talks her into spending a day with him in Vienna, and the next 90 minutes capture the rush of falling in love like few films have. The ending had Jesse and Celine promise, although heading off to separate continents in a pre-email world, that they would meet again six months later in the same spot.
Linklater’s latest, “Before Midnight,” has Jesse and Celine, now married with kids and more than a few worry lines, at a dinner party on an idyllic Greek coast where they’re asked how they met. He describes their day in Vienna, to which someone sighs “how romantic!” only for Celine to blurt out “Not really!” If “Before Sunrise” captured all the fairy-tale hopes of one’s 20s, then “Before Midnight” welcomes you to the graveyard of all illusion called your 40s.
Jesse and Celine — who finally got together a decade after they first met in the equally romantic and hopeful sequel “Before Sunset” — are now like so many married couples: stressed out by parenting, by the complication of kids from a previous marriage (his), by competing career trajectories, by all the demands of middle age. Worse, they are showing the traits of a failing relationship: They bicker, they make jokes about each other that aren’t really jokes, she airs all their dirty laundry in public, he pees with the door open, she takes cellphone calls while they’re trying to get it on.
“Before Midnight” is as brilliant and well-observed as the first two films, but I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again: The argument that escalates into near-total marital breakdown — where both Jesse and Celine get to sarcastically shout “Right, it’s always my fault!” — is just too real. For people well into middle age, this movie will sting with its familiarity, but for younger viewers who are working through the trilogy, this last chapter will seem like a nightmare: No matter how cool and free and romantic and spontaneous you are in your 20s, you will wind up like your parents.
And yet somehow that old flame is burning and they still try to make it work. The point of “Before Midnight” — scripted by Linklater, Delpy and Hawke — is partly to show how hard that is, but more so to show that a deep connection also means putting up with a partner’s foibles and getting past it. Hurts and insecurities never completely fade, but we do learn to recognize them, and let them rise and pass.
Delpy and Hawke are often not given their due for these roles; their acting is so natural, their dialogue so much like real conversation and argument that people assume they are improvising, when in fact this is all rather tightly scripted. The film is as talky as ever for a Linklater, and if you sometimes get the feeling that they’re trying to cram a decade’s worth of thoughts and observations into one film, well, it’s rarely less than interesting.
One caution: this is definitely not recommended as a date movie. Discussing “Before Midnight” with several male friends, we were all of the opinion that it wasn’t him, it was her. Somehow I have a feeling that female viewers will walk out with the exact opposite impression.