Movie sequels rarely work. Trilogies even less so. The rare exception is Richard Linklater’s three-peat: “Before Sunrise” (1994), “Before Sunset” (2004), and now, “Before Midnight.”
In that first film, Ethan Hawke’s cynical 20-something Jesse picks up Julie Delpy’s wide-eyed Celine on a train while backpacking through Europe, and they spend the night in Vienna. In the morning, still full of talk and hopes, they arrange to meet again in six months.
Jesse and Celine reunite in the sequel not having seen each other since Vienna, 10 years before. He has written a well-regarded novel based on their night together, and Celine shows up at his reading in a Paris bookstore. She’s single; he has a son back in America and a bad marriage. As in “Before Sunrise,” they spend much of the movie airing their ideas and walking and walking and walking. It’s a love duet without being explicit about it, and in the end Jesse misses his plane back to America in order to be with her.
Both of these films captured like no other American movie (and precious few foreign-language ones) the iridescent, melancholy tone of youthful ardor. Although scripted (largely by Linklater and the two actors), they had an impeccable improvisatory feel. It was as if the actors were discovering their emotions right before our eyes.
In “Before Midnight,” we discover right away that Jesse is divorced and living in Paris with Celine and their twin daughters (played by Jennifer and Charlotte Prior). We pick up with them on the last day of their month-long summer vacation on the Greek island of Crete. Jesse has just packed his moody son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), off to Chicago and his mother.
The drive back from the airport is an extended scene, shot in a single take, in which Jesse and Celine immediately boil up their worries: She thinks he wants her to sidetrack her career as an environmental activist and relocate to Chicago so he can be closer to his son.
Celine and Jesse must be the most vocal movie couple since the heyday of Ingmar Bergman. They hash everything out, but the jabber often dips and wheels in directions that catch each of them (and us) by surprise.
The back-and-forth is so recognizable from the buzz and hum of our own lives and relationships that at times I felt I wasn’t watching a movie at all. But, of course, this transparent realism is the highest form of artifice. Just ask any actor or director.
The film’s major set piece occurs near the end, when Jesse and Celine, that same day, slip away to a nearby hotel for their last night together in Greece. Approaching middle age now, they reminisce about their pasts together and apart. But the tensions of the here and now swamp their affections and soon they are going after each other in ways that are startlingly hurtful.
This extended sequence, lasting perhaps 30 minutes, cuts so deep because we have been made to care for these people – we have, in a sense, grown up with them. And because both of them have burned off the youthful glow they had in the earlier films, their harder-edged transformations can seem alienating to us, a renunciation of youthful dreams.
Linklater is no starry-eyed idealist, even though he earlier captured supremely well the blush of early romance. Here he and his actors capture equally well the backwash of those dreams. But this is nothing to be sorry about. “Before Midnight” is the fullest and richest and saddest of the three movies in the trilogy.
Make it a quartet, I say. Grade: A (Rated R for sexual content/nudity and language.)