For better or for worse — mostly better — Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke may best be remembered for their romantically euphoric trilogy in collaboration with wunderkind Generation X auteur Richard Linklater. Each of Linklater's “Before” films — about a developing romance between a talkative American writer and a hyper-articulate Frenchwoman — has improved on its predecessor — and that's saying something. Fireworks of authentic stream-of-consciousness dialogue, spikes of emotion, and the madness of love reach a crescendo of palpable joie de vivre in “Before Midnight.” Audiences can't help but admire this bold expression of intellectually and erotically charged connection between two undeniably attracted souls.
The first collaboration “Before Sunrise” (1995) introduced romantically inclined couple Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) travelling on a train from Budapest to Vienna. Sparks of curiosity and lust ignited to the strains of Vivaldi, Straus, and Kate Bloom. “Before Sunset” (2004) found the lovers reuniting for a one-night-stand of sorts in Paris where Jesse — a successful author inspired by the events in the first film — reads from his latest book. Things got complicated.
Now, nearly two decades since they first met, the couple lives together in France with their twin daughters. The film begins at the end of a summer vacation in Greece where they have spent the past six weeks sharing the exotic home of a fellow author and his family. Jesse sees his son off at the airport, destined to return to Jesse’s ex-wife. [Celine can't stand the thought of the woman.] Hawke is a caring but awkward father who worries that his 12-year-old boy didn’t have enough fun during their time spent bonding together in the Mediterranean paradise. The naturalistic scene sets the film’s neo-realistic tone. We are hooked.
A real-time conversation plays out between Jesse and Celine as they drive back to their host’s house while the girls sleep in the back seat. They discuss the long-term effect on the girls of their decision to pass up a promised sightseeing stop at a natural landmark. The seemingly impromptu conversation hits a staggering number of relationship reference points that draw the audience inside their casually intimate style of communicating. No topic is off limits. Politics, sex, religion, literature, and economic realities all come percolating to the surface. It's clear that Linklater and his two actors spent much time together crafting and polishing the personalized script. The dialogue shimmers.
A farewell dinner with their hosts gives way to a gifted night at a resort hotel that promises the couple some welcome alone time. However, Celine’s possible bipolar disorder crashes the party late in the game, causing Jesse to reach deep into his pocket of tricks to bring Celine around to a romantic reality built as much on fantasy as on a unifying method for achieving harmony in the relationship. “Before Midnight” feels like two intimate weeks spent with Jesse and Celine, compressed inside a 108-minute movie. A higher compliment, I cannot imagine. Bravo.
Rated R. 108 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)