First, a word of warning: If you don’t already know what happens in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, you’re better off heading to Downtown West as soon as your schedule allows and watching the movie for yourself. There’s really no way to discuss the movie without spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything about what Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have been up to—I certainly didn’t—stop reading now.
When we last left the couple in 2004’s Before Sunset, the unhappily married Jesse was in Celine’s apartment in Paris, about to miss his plane. (In case you don’t remember, since it has been nine years, Jesse had reunited with Celine at a book-signing earlier that afternoon; his first novel was about the night the pair spent in Vienna nine years earlier, chronicled in 1995’s classic Before Sunrise.)
In Before Midnight we learn that Jesse did miss that plane, opting for days (weeks?) of passionate sex with Celine before finally returning home to dissolve his marriage. That dissolution has not gone so well—nine years later, Jesse’s ex still hates him (and Celine) and has taken the anger out in custody struggles over their son, Hank. Jesse and Celine have remained together but are now accompanied by 7-year-old twin daughters. Jesse’s second novel, a recounting of his reunion with Celine, was a bestseller like his first, but his third, more theoretical book has not sold well. Celine’s also frustrated with her environmental work and is considering a government position.
All of this setup is revealed in the first few minutes of the movie, as the couple drive back from the airport, where Jesse has just sent Hank back to the U.S. after he has spent the summer with them in Greece. The family returns to the vacation house where they are staying with several other couples, and, over dinner, a conversation about the nature of love and relationships occurs. Then Celine and Jesse head to a hotel in a nearby village for a romantic evening alone. What happens next is the heart of the movie—and it’s not what you expect.
If you’ve ever been in a serious, long-term relationship, you’ve probably had a night like this: You’re having a great time. You’re feeling romantic. Maybe half your clothes are already off. And then something happens—a phrase is said, a sentence uttered that takes you out of the moment and into a different one. You express your frustration. Tensions escalate. Before you know, you’re having one of the worst fights of your life.
This is what happens in Before Midnight—we watch Celine and Jesse have one of the most realistic, brutal, painful fights ever filmed, and we watch it in real time, in one long take. It’s the kind of fight most married couples have at some point (although Celine and Jesse are technically not married), where dissatisfaction over everything from childcare duties to careers to sex to dirty socks spills out, and things are said that can’t be unsaid.
The fight might play as something of a cross between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and This Is 40 if it didn’t feel so damn real. I think Before Sunrise has had such a lasting appeal because it always seemed like it was the kind of thing that could happen—yes, Jesse and Celine meet cute on a train, after she moves seats to get away from a couple fighting bitterly, but then they just walk around, and talk, and talk some more. It’s exactly the conversation two somewhat intellectual college students would have while crisscrossing a European city over an evening. It’s romantic, but it’s not a romantic comedy. It just felt real.
Now, Jesse and Celine are that couple on the train—the other one, the one fighting. The illusions are gone, the romance has dissipated in the face of the reality of day-to-day life with children, stepchildren, exes, and jobs. If the first two movies were a realistic version of a fairy-tale romance, Before Midnight is what happens after the happy ending. It’s alternately sweet and sad, horrifying and beautiful.
At the end of the movie, after the fight, Jesse finds Celine alone on the patio. He tries to charm her, to make her laugh. She’s reluctant to engage. Frustrated, he tells her again how much he loves her but that there’s only so much more he can take. This is true love, he says, this is what it looks like. This is as close as you get. But it’s not easy, it takes work.
Eventually, Celine smiles, and as the camera fades out, the couple are laughing and bantering, yet clearly still fragile, still on edge. They’ve made up for now, but nothing they’ve fought about has been resolved.
Will they stay together? End things and have a friendly co-parenting relationship? End things as bitterly as Jesse and his ex? We can only hope Linklater checks back in 2022 with another update—Celine and Jesse at 50. He won’t say one way or another whether another film will happen, or if he’ll let the trilogy stand on its own, but with the three Before films, Linklater has indubitably created one of the most affecting portraits of a relationship across time in cinematic history. I, for one, hope it’s not over yet.