We last met Jesse and Celine in Paris.
Before Midnight is the third installment in the “Before” series, preceded by Before Sunset, in which the two paramours reconnect at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and spend an afternoon roaming Paris: a cafe, a park walk, a Seine-side stroll and boat ride.
When they met in Paris, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) arrived as a celebrated writer on a book tour and Celine (Julie Delpy, a real-life Parisienne) arrived at his book signing, nine years after their spontaneous night in Vienna, prompted by a serendipitous encounter on a train, shown in the original film, Before Sunrise.
The second film closed with Jesse sitting in Celine’s Paris apartment, missing the flight home to his wife and son. How cliche. Almost as cliche as portraying a Frenchwoman as a husband-thieving minx.
In Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine are now together. This time, we meet them in the Peloponnese in Greece. His son and ex-wife live in Chicago, and Jesse and Celine live in Paris with their twin daughters.
The film opens with Jesse bidding adieu to his son, Henry, at the Peloponnesian airport. Jesse, whose unkempt and casual style puts him in line with his teenage son, suggests, “We could Skype once a week or something?” His son talks sparingly, and requests Jesse not come to Chicago for his upcoming piano recital, “you know how much Mom hates you,” says Henry.
Among his forced, wooden acting, the line is delivered on point.
The film jumps off from Jesse’s parental guilt. He leaves the airport to greet Celine and the girls. Celine jabbers in French on her cell phone, and the two pile in the car with the kids to drive back to the country home where they’re staying, on invitation from a famous writer.
Celine speaks to the girls in Frenglish, blending French and English. It’s done in a way I’d find annoying as a bystander, yet secretly wish my mom had done the same.
The film sets in motion: a drive past nondescript “ruins,” arrival at the house, an hours-long, multi-generational lunch with grapes, wine and social gripes. There’s a visit to a Byzantine temple, a long walk, and an ocean-side swim, with nary a Bateaux-Mouches in site.
The night caps off with a would-be romantic stay at a hotel. “I’m stuck with an American teenager!” laments Celine at Jesse’s exhausting antics. “Next thing you know, I’m buying peanut butter in Chicago!” she says, referring to the dread of a non-existent, Transatlantic move.
A personal Peloponnesian War ensues, with admissions of parental cluelessness and fear of poor child-raising skills; a sentiment to which all parents can relate. Delpy recalls walking around Pigalle in Paris late at night, with the girls in a stroller, hoping they’d fall asleep.
There are funny scenes along the way: Celine recalling her dad secretly killing her childhood kittens. Delpy’s real-life father appeared in the previous film, and in a Delpy-directed 2 Days in Paris, both times playing her character’s father. It is not hard to imagine him killing kittens.
Hawke’s boyish charm and Delpy’s Renaissance style create a chemistry that has held up for nearly twenty years, since Before Sunrise debuted in 1995. The two co-wrote the script with Linklater, and one senses much of their real-life personalities written into the script. Hawke and Linklater are both Texans, and it shows – in substance and style.
Their complaints and observations feel self-indulgent and tiresome, yet their banter stimulates one’s own reflections.
And that’s the mark of both good haute couture and a great film: Transformation.