Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight

Before Sunrise was never supposed to start a franchise. A touching, wondrous glimpse of two people meeting and immediately falling in love, Richard Linklater's 1995 romance worked perfectly well as a standalone story of a single night, even if the tantalizing ambiguity of its ending—in which nascent lovers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) agreed to meet again in Vienna in six months' time—left viewers speculating as to what happened next. But to our surprise, Linklater resumed their story in 2004 with Before Sunset, which reunited Jesse and Celine for a few fateful hours in Paris. As it turned out, logistical issues prevented the lovers from reconnecting in Vienna, but even after nine years, their chemistry still crackled, and Before Sunset concluded with the winsome suggestion that they might in fact live happily ever after. Did they? To answer that question, Linklater and his two leads (who, for this film and the last, are also his writing partners) have returned with Before Midnight, which shatters our fairytale expectations with stark realism and painful honesty. Jesse and Celine may yet find bliss, but as this movie makes ruthlessly clear, it won't be easy.

When it opens, however, all seems to be well. We quickly learn that Jesse stayed in Paris with Celine all that time ago, and they're now married with a pair of adorable twin daughters, vacationing together in Greece. More importantly, they're still well-suited to engage in the one activity common to all three films: talk. In the movie's first major set piece—a lengthy static two-shot of the parents driving in their car while their children doze fitfully in the backseat—our loquacious lovers yammer back and forth, trading verbal volleys with a naturalistic patter that instantly reinforces their unique intimacy and reminds us of why they fell for each other in the first place. Linklater has always been fascinated by characters doing nothing in particular (see: Dazed and Confused; don't see: Waking Life), but Jesse and Celine remain his finest creation because of their specificity. They make quite the match, precisely because their temperaments are so disparate. Jesse, a writer by trade, is thoughtful and bookishly romantic but can also be maddeningly passive-aggressive, whereas Celine is passionate but frequently hotheaded and occasionally downright hostile. They are perfect for one another, which is also why they drive each other nuts.

It's tempting to view Before Midnight as a treatise on marriage, but it's more (and less) than that; it's a detailed investigation of this marriage, and how these two people combat the creeping forces of familiarity and ennui that can conspire to derail any long-term relationship. And so, when Jesse casually mentions during that opening car ride that he's struggling to stomach living so far from his Chicago-based teenage son (the product of a previous partnership that disintegrated shortly after the events of Before Sunset), Celine recognizes the gravity of his tossed-off comment and pounces. "This is how people break up," she says caustically, and in the context of a rambling, typical conversation between partners, Linklater has sown the seeds of discontent that ripen throughout the remainder of the movie. If Before Sunrise was a testament to the raw electricity of Jesse and Celine's love and Before Sunset affirmed the rarity of its power, Before Midnight explores the strength of its endurance. Can their relationship, initially forged with a white-hot flame, continue to subsist once passions have cooled and the mundanities of real life take over?

Linklater, as is his way, is hardly in a rush to provide an answer. An unhurried filmmaker by nature, he prefers to let his characters simply breathe and behave, rather than prodding them with plot. It's a relaxed, deliberate approach that is sometimes frustrating, and for a brief time—especially when Jesse and Celine congregate with a coterie of erudite scholars for a languid outdoor dinner—Before Midnight feels a bit slack. Thankfully, though, their friends have made arrangements for them to spend a romantic evening in a downtown hotel, and so husband and wife depart for a leisurely stroll through the sun-dappled Peloponnese, Linklater's camera continually tracking them with unforced immediacy.

It is here that Before Midnight both recalls its predecessors and distinguishes itself from them. Jesse and Celine can still talk the talk; their banter is as natural as ever, and Hawke and Delpy know these people so well that their performances feel effortlessly lived-in, inhabiting their characters as a second skin. But the tenor of their conversation has shifted into something darker and more restless. Jesse's dreamy disposition now feels less quixotic than irresponsible, while Celine's impetuousness is no longer as disarming as it is touchy and defensive. They remain ideal sparring partners, but listening to them relive past memories or bicker about trivialities, you get the sense that they're on the precipice, and that the powder keg is about to blow.

And so it does, because once they arrive at the hotel, all hell breaks loose. It begins innocently enough—Celine chats briefly with Jesse's son by phone but then hangs up before allowing her husband to speak with his son—but it quickly degenerates into all-out verbal warfare. There's no physical violence, but it's still rough stuff. Linklater and his actors possess a keen understanding of how people who love each other are uniquely capable of hurting one another, and as his protagonists hurl insults and rip open scabbed wounds, you get the horrifying sensation that you're witnessing the self-destruction of a marriage in real time. It is not necessarily fun to watch, but it is riveting and, to fans of the first two films, heartrending. We fell in love with these characters 18 years ago, watching them fall in love with each other. Wasn't their love immortal? Or was it in fact ephemeral, like that of so many relationships in the real world?

As with its forebears, Before Midnight ends not with certainty but with possibility. Perhaps Jesse and Celine will ride out this storm, recognizing that theirs is a resilient connection that can endure in the face of splintering discord. Or perhaps they will give up, simply unable to withstand the inexorable toll that real life can levy on even the grandest romances. Likely as not, we'll find out in another nine years. In the meantime, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have afforded us yet another glimpse into the lives of two inimitable cinematic creations, and for this, you should be grateful. But you may also be dismayed.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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