Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Before Midnight"

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in "Before Midnight"

Before Midnight
by N.F. Mendoza

Director Richard Linklatter, and his stars and co-writers, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, have, at last, answered their fans' pleas: they finally made the third film of their popular "Before" series of films. It seemed utterly inconceivable that the film, shown at Sundance in January, did not have distribution.

The web is ripe with fan fiction, virtual love letters, supposing on that proverbial "what happened??" Where the first two films ended without conventional conclusions, "Before Midnight" does. End, that is. It may not end with a pretty package and a bow, but the eventual outcome, what will happen to lovers Jesse and Celine, is certainly clear. And that clarity may differ between the optimist and the not.

The trilogy of films consists of the nearly two-decade relationship between a French girl-turned-woman and an American boy-turned man. Each film spans the course of one day.

The film that started it all, 1995's "Before Sunrise."

"Before Sunrise," set in 1994 (the film was released in 1995), presented the ultimate in "meet cute" -- two students spark up a conversation on the Eurorail. The boy, Jesse (Hawke), has spent two weeks riding the train aimlessly, after being unceremoniously dumped by his college girlfriend, who is now studying in Madrid, and clearly favoring her sophisticated entourage of European friends over her visiting American soon-to-be-ex boyfriend. He's found the cheapest returning flight to the U.S., and that plane leaves out of Vienna. The girl, Celine (the luminous July Delpy), is on her way back to school, to the Sorbonne; she's been visiting her beloved grandmother in Budapest.

Attempting to get out of earshot of a feuding German couple on the bench seat next to her, Celine gathers her scant belongings and providentially ends up sitting across the aisle from Jesse (she will, much later, infer that she purposely sat next to him). Jesse's clearly taken with her and (this will prove to be more than ironic two films later) seeing an opening for conversation, asks what was going on with disgruntled couple.

Jesse and Celine talk, take their conversation to the dining car, clearly enjoying each other's company, when the train stops in Vienna -- this is where Jesse's catching his plane, the next morning. It's only a stopover, however, for Celine. He charms her into getting off the train and  spending the afternoon and evening with him.

Celine and Jesse sampling the sounds the sweetly melodic "Come Here" by Kath Bloom

As they engage further in conversation, they're drawn to each other, clearly attracted. They share their first kiss in a carousel car, as the lights of the city twinkle beneath them. It's magical, romantic, sweet and touching. They constantly make reference to his departure the next morning, but they still fall in love. As they're bidding adieu -- she's getting back on the train, and he's heading to the airport, they break their pact to not see each other again, and agree to meet, at the train station, in six months, in December. The film ends with loving images of all the places the couple walked and talked.

Nine years later, Jesse and Celine are in Paris, "Before Sunset."

Nine years later, it's "Before Sunset." At Paris' legendary Shakespeare and Company book shop, the now successful novelist Jesse is on the final leg of his book tour. His novel, it is quickly revealed, chronicles his incredible time with Celine. As his visit is winding down, he catches a glimpse of an elegant blonde between the bookshelves: it is Celine. The audience soon learns the couple haven't seen each other since that Viennese night.

There's catching up -- but all is not revealed immediately, despite the short amount of time they have to visit -- his flight leaves for New York that evening. Eventually, the couple finally reveal to each other what happened. Celine's grandmother died and the funeral was December 16, the day they agreed to meet. Jesse awkwardly says he didn't show up either, only to admit he actually did. Even though he is understanding and sympathetic, Jesse later speculates it was at that moment, that he may have given up on romantic love. They are both successful in their professional lives and have had what is the equivalent of a distraction in partners.

Celine shows Jesse the sights of Paris.

But it's more serious for Jesse. When his on-off girlfriend got pregnant, he married her. He has a son, Hank, who he adores, but a wife who he can't love the way she should be loved. Jesse is not disparaging of his wife -- but he doesn't have that deep connection he had with Celine. Celine fights the admission, but eventually, albeit angrily, tells him she "was fine," until she read his book, which "stirred shit up."

Celine tests if Jesse will dissolve into molecules at a touch.

Jesse's driver drops Celine off at her apartment, and Jesse walks her to the door, when he's inspired to beg her to sing one of her songs for him (she tells him she loves to write songs and play guitar). She plays him the beautiful, catchy and very romantic "A Waltz," serves him a cup of tea, reminisces about a Nina Simone concert and tells him, "You are gonna miss that plane," to which he replies, "I know." The screen fades to black.

Celine and Jesse, on the way back to their Greek host's home, after dropping Hank off at the airport. 

And, now at last, it's "Before Midnight." There's no explanatory voice over or title cards. The audience knows this much as the film begins: Jess now lives in Europe, and his teenage son Hank has spent a glorious summer with him, and they're now at an airport in Greece. Hank's going home. In the brief time Hank spends on screen, it is clear that he is a thoughtful, sensitive, and bright child. He may even be well adjusted, despite the long separations from his father. As Jesse parts with Hank at the gate, Jesse's longing and despair is palpable. He is clearly pained when Hank casually mentions that his mother hates Jesse, and it's not alleviated when Hank adds, "but she hates Daniel more." His mother, the jilted woman, has evidently had at least two unsuccessful relationships with men. A credible,  and lovely touch is the ease and fondness Celine and Hank have for each other. It is Celine who Hank calls to check in with; not his irked father.

"Before Midnight" was worth the wait. In the intervening years, Hawke intimated that if there was to be a third film, it would depict what would likely be a volatile relationship. He was prescient (although that's probably not fair, since he is a co-writer of "Midnight").

The couple's twin girls, Ella and Nina, help pick veggies for lunch. (Fans of  "Before Sunset" may recognize, and assume, the girls are named for Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald)

The film is beautifully constructed, maintaining the "single day" trope. The danger would be for the film to be too expository -- fans want to know what happened in those intervening years. Nearly every question or curiosity is answered, but brilliantly executed, in an organic way. The characters, thankfully, remain true to who they were when they were first introduced.

The couple's interactions with other people (the friends who've invited them for this six-week vacation in Greece) feel real. And, the way that Jesse and Celine interact is wholly credible for what they've been through, and how they have been shown to the audience. They are now a couple, and parents to a set of ethereal blonde twin girls. The way the girls' look (they spend the first part of the film asleep in the backseat, while Jesse and Celine ruminate with each other) may be in direct opposition of how they are. When they describe them, it's clear they only look angelic. They behave as any other children might.

Grecian beauty

There are running threads throughout the film that are very subtle, but very effective. In "Sunrise," Jesse asks Celine if she believes in reincarnation. She quickly responds, "Yes." In "Sunset," he asks her the same question. Her response, nine years later, "No." But Celine continues to be contradictory. She talks about picturing them as ashy bodies in Pompei. She imagines what Jesse will look like and wear to her funeral. If it's possible, the mature, maternal Celine may be even more dramatic than she was at 21.

Despite the fact Celine is highly intelligent, beautiful, and beloved (their primary host in Greece notes it is the first time a visiting writer's partner was more interesting than the writer), she is still profoundly insecure, and that insecurity appears to have grown through the years. In "Sunrise," she's completely distressed that she's going to become some random "French girl," if she capitulates to her own desires, and has sex with Jesse. In "Sunset," when she asks how she's different, he tells her she's skinnier, and she laments, "you wrote a book about a fat French girl!" In "Midnight," she refers to herself as matronly and "balding."

On the way to a boutique hotel for a romantic, childless evening -- a gift from their Greek friends.

And while Celine is beyond bitter for the ill way they've been treated by Hank's mother, she actually  set the seeds for why a mother might be given a proverbial "free pass" in "Sunrise." As they're leaving the "tourist" boat on the Seine, Celine laments how Jesse's wife can't be everything to him, because she has to "take care of the little one." In "Midnight," while it's clear they are both devoted and doting parents, Celine demands more "credit" and acknowledgement for the efforts she's endured (which include the challenges of giving birth to twins while contending with Jesse's furious, and bitter ex-wife).

It will be no surprise to fans of the first two films: "Midnight" is very dialogue heavy. These are characters who love to talk, and love to talk to each other. But they know each other intimately now, and make frequent  and easy references to behaviors and preferences; they assumed a lot more about each other in "Sunrise" and "Sunset." Now, they know. And, like any couple who are so intensely bonded, a fight brings out the ugliest in each. An inevitable discussion escalates into a scathing argument and, finally erupts into a fight. Celine has never liked what she perceives as Jesse's cavalier attitude.This time, she actually mocks him, and articulates her annoyance with his "rational way."

The Celine of "Midnight" is purposely obtuse, prone to exaggeration, and provocative in her declarations. Jesse has, a viewer can easily imagine, "managed" her all these years. But when they are finally alone with each other, at the end of the day, they're now talking, arguing, fighting over a very serious issue, to which there is no easy solution. Both of them "have a point." In the course of this argument, previous capituations (replete with the associated resentment) are revealed. And they are each, and on both sides, big concessions.

The hotel room confrontation. Intended by well-meaning friends as a signature romantic setting, Celine and Jesse let it all hang out.

Celine is shocking, stunningly mean in the last third of the film. But there always was, in younger, and even younger Celine, shades of the defeatist. That was something that set Celine and Jesse apart. Celine in her (at least verbalized) "realism" was always a little Eeyore and Jesse, a little Pooh. Theirs was never going to be an "easy" relationship, no matter how strong the "thing"  between them was and is (as "Sunrise's" Jesse described it, as he was talking Celine off the train). And viewers who imagined an idealized relationship based on their evident attraction, connection and bond, are residing in the realm of the blockbuster, not the sharp, witty, poignant, painful, gritty and beautiful world of the independent film, where subtleties and nuances wreak havoc with romantic notions.