The first thought that occurred to me after seeing Before Midnight (2013) was what a luxury it is that a film like this even exists: a luxury for director Richard Linklater, born of his ability to work with dedicated actors and on a low-enough budget to make the kind of movies that can take the time to explore -- really explore -- the complexities of human relationships; a luxury for two fine and serious actors to develop their characters over the course of their relationship; and a luxury for the viewer to walk the streets of Vienna, Paris, and the Peloponnese beside them, to watch Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) change and mature along the bumpy road of their distinctly non-Hollywood romance.
Celine and Jesse's story begins in Before Sunrise (1995), when they meet on a train traveling west from Budapest. They are both young, beautiful, and bright. They strike up a conversation that is intense in the way that everything in life is (or at least should be) intense when one is twenty-two and taking on the big and small questions of life, love, and the world in general. Reluctant to say goodbye when the train arrives in Vienna, Jesse spontaneously asks Celine to get off the train with him, and with equal spontaneity, she does. The two wander through that lovely city all night, drinking coffee, debating, and becoming intimate. When morning arrives and Celine must catch her train to Paris, there is a moment in the station that hangs suspended in time as we and they wonder if this is it -- one beautiful moment to remember for a lifetime -- or if these two young lovers will ever meet again. They don't exchange phone numbers, but they hurriedly make the decision to meet again in the same spot in six months. We are left to wonder if they ever do, until that question is finally answered nine years later in Before Sunset (2004).
The second film is set in Paris, where Jesse has come to Shakespeare and Co. to give a reading of his successful novel, based on his night with Celine. She is in the audience. Although Jesse has only a few hours until he has to catch a flight to New York, the two slip away for a stroll through the winding streets of Paris. We learn that Jesse had returned to Vienna for the proposed rendezvous, but that Celine had been unable to get there. Life goes on, finding them now both in their early thirties, she with a career in humanitarian work, he a successful author with a wife and son. But that one perfect night and a long series of "what-ifs" still connect them to each other, though they have not exchanged a word in nine long years.
It is that "what-if" that makes these first two films so true and so satisfying for this viewer (and i'm sure for many others as well). Who hasn't had some brief, beautiful encounter and wondered what would have happened if...? It might not have been set in anywhere nearly as romantic as Vienna, or with someone as attractive as Julie Delpy or Ethan Hawke. But there are those moments when you are so young, and so completely open, that you feel like you could share every drop of your being with someone you didn't even know a few hours earlier. You might be in your eighties, looking back at the end of a long, eventful, and satisfying life, and still remember that moment, that person, that feeling, that loss. Richard Linklater was inspired by just such an encounter with a young woman named Amy Lehrhaupt, with whom he spent a night wandering the streets of Philadelphia in 1989. Sadly -- and unbeknownst to Linklater, who had lost contact with her -- Lehrhaupt died in a motorcycle accident shortly before filming began on Before Sunrise. Before Midnight is dedicated to her.
Although it answers the big question left hanging at the end of the first film, Before Sunset is not the typically happy and tidy ending to this story. Jesse and Celine are both older and a little more bruised by life; they are beginning to grow into the personalities that were still taking shape in the first film. Yet the feelings they shared in Vienna are still there, and although the consequences of their decision are far more complex than they would have been nine years earlier, they embrace this second chance. Celine caught her train at the end of the first film, but this time Jesse never makes it to the airport for his flight back to New York.
The ending of Before Sunset is a satisfying one for any romantic. We brush aside the big questions of the family that Jesse leaves behind in New York and the more complicated issue of what it means to be involved in a romance that has been -- for lack of a better word -- romanticized, both privately within the imaginations of the two lovers and publicly in a best-selling novel. But when, after another nine-year interval, we catch up with Celine and Jesse again, this time on a vacation in Greece, they are coping with the consequences of that decision: he with guilt over his son, who lives in Chicago with Jesse's embittered ex-wife; she with frustration over how much of her own life has been put on hold for Jesse's benefit and with her own ambivalence in her role as mother to the couple's twin daughters. They are no longer bursting with youth, independence, and possibilities; they are a middle-aged couple dealing with the problems and irritations that come with a shared life. Before Midnight is both heartbreaking and heartwarming as it explores the repercussions of the choices we make in life.
For any viewer who has followed this series from the beginning, there is a comfort and familiarity in seeing Delpy and Hawke grow and change over the course of nearly twenty years. How fortunate or prescient of Linklater to choose these two actors for his leads. Not only do they seem to share the director's dedication to this project, but they are both actors with that most rare of qualities: the willingness to age gracefully in front of the camera. Of course, it helps that Delpy is French and therefore presumably immune to Hollywood's compulsion to turn ever actress over thirty-five into some strange waxworks version of her younger self; but when she is on the screen, she is there as a beautiful woman of forty, believable as a character who has shared a life with someone, who has children, has a career, and has to wrestle with the dissatisfactions and self-questioning that come at that stage in life. In short, she and Hawke both feel palpably real in these roles, and have grown more so with each performance. Celine and Jesse are not always easy to love, but then, who is? And no matter how self-absorbed he might be or how prickly she sometimes is, this is how real people are outside the world of fairy tale endings, and it is impossible not to care about them and hope to run into them another nine years down the road.