Has it really been 18 years since film audiences were charmed by the flirtations of American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy)? They met cute on a train crossing Europe, and enjoyed the kind of romance that fuels successful books like the one Jesse is promoting when the two reconnected about a decade later. Those two films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, were masterfully created by director Richard Linklater and his two stars, who managed to make viewers feel like they were eavesdropping on an intensely personal experience.
Time and romance move on, and in Before Midnight, we find Jesse and Celine a couple with twin daughters, wondering about the choices they’ve made and their impact. Jesse is wracked with guilt at not being able to spend more time with Hank, his son from his former marriage, whereas Celine reasons that kids are resilient and besides, there’s no way she’d uproot her own children to move to the United States. Tensions continue to simmer as they spend time with friends, who clamor for more retellings of their legendary romance in between sharing philosophies of why
and how men and women are different. The trip culminates in what is supposed to be a romantic one-night hotel getaway, which instead becomes a knock-down-drag-out fight that leaves everybody—not just the two people on screen—feeling emotionally bruised and physically exhausted.
The intimate nature of the story, and the way the actors voice their dialogue just as if it’s coming right out of their heads and not from a script, is provocative (even as it reminds one of not having had any meaningful discussions in way too long!) and insightful. Celine, finding sexism behind every word or glance, can be insufferable, but her frailty and vulnerability come out, revealing relatable fears about aging and settling. For his part, Jesse tries to come to terms with what it means to be a real man while trying to convince Celine that real love comes with occasional ugliness. It’s a remarkable feat, one which makes us wish that a fourth installment isn’t so long in coming.