It’s easy to be wary of sequels, especially when confronted by the sure-to-be-crass likes of Transformers 4. Certainly, there are great genre films that spawn worthy sequels. The James Bond movies, particularly those starring Daniel Craig as Agent 007, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are all the better for their multiple installments. But usually, greed is the motivator for returning to the well. I’m happy to report that’s not the case with writer-director Richard Linklater’s films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and the latest in the de facto series, Before Midnight.
I should mention that there are no aliens or car chases or superheroics in these films. They are romantic dramas done cinéma-vérité style, tracing the relationship between lovers Jesse and Celine over almost 20 years. The closest comparison would be with Francois Truffaut’s series of five Antoine Doinel films over 20 years, starting with The 400 Blows.
In 1995, Linklater and lead actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy collaborated on Before Sunrise, which told how laconic American backpacker Jesse met his match in passionate French intellectual Celine on a European train ride. The film’s naturalistic, often improvised dialogue and its bittersweet climax were bracing, and the chemistry between Hawke and Delpy was palpably real. It was such a memorable effort that the director and actors decided to revisit the characters in 2004’s Before Sunset, wherein the now-married and successful author Jesse comes to Paris from the United States for a book signing, encounters Celine, and they spend the day rekindling their affection for one another with tumultuous results.
Which brings us to Before Midnight. It’s nine years down the road for Jesse and Celine. They’re married, and though they live in Paris, we join them on vacation in Greece with their cute twin daughters. They’ve just sent Jesse’s son by his first wife back to school in America, and, despite the beauty of their surroundings and the romance at the core of their relationship, they’re dealing with the stresses of their life together. Should they relocate to America, so they can be close to Jesse’s son? Should the bohemian, opinionated Celine straighten up and take a government job in Paris? Can Jesse duplicate the success of his career-making first novel that was so heavily influenced by his first encounter with Celine that it casts a long and sometimes burdensome shadow on their relationship? Then, there’s the dimming of ardor that can plague couples over time.
Like its predecessors, Before Midnight is talky, heartfelt, and poignant. Its success is in large part due to the emotional honesty Hawke and Delpy bring to performances that seem too real to be acting or artifice. We care about this couple because we believe this couple. If you haven’t seen the first two films, you might want to catch them before you see Before Midnight, but together or individually, they are all worth watching.