BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013, Richard Linklater): 9/10
But, you know, I was 9/10 on SUNRISE the first time too, and now it’s one of my favorite films of all time. I still have to digest MIDNIGHT and see it a few more times (and maybe let it breathe for a few years like the other two films did), but 9 or 10, this thing is awesome. And please check out this piece I posted a couple months ago on SUNRISE & SUNSET, which, after a few eye-rollingly self-absorbed autobiographical paragraphs, turns into some pretty good film criticism if I must say so myself.
[Note: there will be some spoilers in here so read at your peril]
We open on a pair of black Chucks — fans of the series will note that Jesse wears black Chucks for the entirety of SUNRISE — but this time they belong not to Jesse but to his son Hank. Time is passing. Like father, like 14 year-old son, and more than once Celine calls Jesse an overgrown teenager or man-child or whatever. A few minutes later we see Celine on her iPhone, and the case is one of those old school audio-casette designs. Of course Celine would have that case — not just because she’s a musician, but because she too lives in the past, or at least yearns for it.
The rest of the film’s first half continues to question the nature of time, the passage of it, the impermanence of it, and the subjectivity of perception. A lot of this is done regarding discussion of Jesse’s new novel (he’s no longer just writing about Celine, which can be read as both a good and a bad thing, and key to understanding what the film is getting at), and at a lovely lunch gathering with friends. For the first time in three movies we’re seeing Jesse and Celine interact with others, and it’s a beautifully natural scene, filmed ravenously by Linklater and Greek DP Christos Voudouris (taking over from Lee Daniel and making what is easily Linklater’s best-looking film to date) and acted to a tee by all participants.
But the next half brings us back to the familiar — Jesse and Celine being Jesse and Celine, and when these two characters come together for earnest discussion it’s just magic. Always magic. Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater are at their absolute peak when they work in this mode, better than any of them have been solo (terrific work like DAZED AND CONFUSED, THREE COLORS: WHITE, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and GATTACA notwithstanding). Hawke continues to torch the screen with blazing focus, whether he’s being charmingly sarcastic or viciously insulting. Delpy outdoes herself here, as we see her flip a switch during their hotel room debate — her jaw tightens and her eyes grow dark, then she just lets loose with some brutal barbs that match Hawke’s scathing shots. Physically and emotionally, Delpy presents Celine as a complex and fully-realized woman, never overly mannered or lacking specificity. Plus, both Hawke and Delpy have become better writers than they were 9 years ago — this script is precise and confident, containing not only harsh truths but also gut-busting dialogue; never has a BEFORE film been so laugh-out-loud funny. (Though I guess if I have minor quibbles with this film, it’s in the rare contrivances — like the conveniently-planted coitus-interruptus phone call that ignites the climactic battle).
Furthermore, after the intimate and confined visuals in the Paris entry of this trilogy (as I said before, SUNSET is quite good but doesn’t utilize its location as well as SUNRISE did), Linklater is back in business here in Greece, giving the “Southern Peloponnese” front-and-center treatment; it’s sun-drenched, romantic, ancient, and human. Plus, like Vienna, it’s a neutral setting (neither in Celine’s home court of Paris, nor in America — where not a frame of these three films has ever taken place).
What the film ultimately has to say — or, more accurately, to question — about lifelong commitments, true love, self-knowledge, mistakes, and history (both of the self, a relationship, and the earth itself) I will leave to others, including myself in the future after I’ve seen this more times and let it settle. But it’s telling that the film is haunted by ghosts of other couples, both young and old — Jesse’s grandparents who were together 74 years, Jesse’s ex-wife, the Greek couples at lunch (including the fresh-faced Ariane Labed and Yiannis Papadopoulos, who mirror Jesse and Celine with their romantic meeting and new attraction), and even Jesse and Celine from the future. One thing’s for sure — the future of cinema will clearly recognize this trilogy as one of its finest works of art, a searing, lovely, sad, and painfully honest depiction of two humans struggling to find each other in a curious and imposing universe.