They developed a unique romantic arc with just a single “sunrise” and a single “sunset” together on screen, but Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine have never been more melodiously moving than at “midnight.” This third entry in the beautifully aging series marks the most tender and touching time in the cinematically enabled lives of Jesse and Celine, who have finally bucked their trend of one-night stands and are now a couple with twin girls and many years of relationship history behind them. Taking these two characters beyond the brief encounters staged in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” and catapulting them into the complex world of a serious, committed relationship is perhaps an inevitable next stop on the extending timeline, but in the hands of Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater (all sharing the writing credits), this turn of events yields delightful results.
Maintaining the essential ideals of the previous entries, Before Midnight unfolds almost in real time with whole swaths of long conversations occupying the running time, except now Jesse and Celine are talking about their entwined lives instead of their usually separate ones. Their default discussion points still weigh heavily in favor of love, sex, and romance, but their experiences in these areas now trace back to each other, leading to a lived-in portrait of a relationship that has finally blossomed nearly two decades after they first met.
This new situation provides the most robust dramatic structure of the series because every chat between these two now burns with the intensity of direct consequences and challenges that only a couple with a past, present, and intended future can face. By stripping away the romance of a dreamily isolated encounter, Hawkes, Delpy, and Linklater dig at something deeper and more daunting. What lies ahead for Jesse and Celine is open to interpretation, but it’s clear their future is unwritten and their conversations now are less about sharing philosophies and more about making life-altering decisions that require great compromises.
The one compromise this couple was forced to endure before was time, but now it’s a question of how Jesse can be closer to his stateside son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) from his previous relationship and whether or not Celine should take a new job. They’re finally together and yet the Atlantic Ocean has never been a more distancing factor for these two. It’s intriguing and clever that geography plays such an important role here, since this series as a whole has always shuffled these two characters to a new European city for each individual entry. This time around, the pair who normally resides in Paris is vacationing in Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula. Beautiful and tranquil, this lovely spot acts as a neutral space that forces Jesse and Celine to reconsider their sense of home.
They end up reconsidering everything else while they’re at it, leading Before Midnight to many moments of humorous honesty. Every insecurity they now share with each other threatens to cut deep and every flaw is eventually exposed, which is a lot to pack into a few hours during a single summer evening. It’s enough to potentially topple their relationship, which makes for great, meaningful drama for us audience members since Jesse and Celine’s onscreen coupling has only just materialized in this third picture. The combination of new territory for the onscreen versions of these characters and deftly established backstories for the offscreen versions inspires a juggling act that distributes the dramatic focus equally among the shared history and their currently unfolding experience.
It’s also refreshing that Jesse and Celine can still hold a conversation like few others, switching gears and topics with hardly a pause between, but the content of their conversations has never been more moving. It helps that Hawkes and Delpy have become one with their characters, erasing any seams that were once visible in the previous pictures. They own these roles with such tenacity that they simply seem to breathe with life that is both cinematic and authentic, as if the screen that separates them from us is merely a suggestion.
The cast of supporting characters here is also wonderful, lending a fresh sense of humor and attitude to the mix, while also giving Jesse and Celine a few opportunities to bounce their ideas off someone other than each other. But in the end, the other people move into the background and the stage is set for Jesse and Celine to have their most riveting and relatable encounter to date.
The final chunk of Before Midnight expertly encompasses the highs and lows of their relationship with the long takes and spiraling conversation that have become the trademarks of this series. The escalation of an argument is captured in such realistic terms that it feels — more than ever — like we’re watching a real couple pour their hearts out before our very eyes. The emotions are raw and yet the humor is never lost; comedy and tragedy remain in perfect balance throughout. Fulfilling another promise of this series, Hawkes, Delpy, and Linklater pinpoint a powerful ending that prompts the roll of the credits at precisely the right time. As is the case with the previous entries, this story could conclude here or it could continue on. We know the before already, but the poignancy of these pictures lies in pondering the after.