Richard Linklater’s Before series has dropped into the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) three times—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and, now, Before Midnight—with each film realistically examining different aspects of the couple’s relationship.
In 1995, the pair met on a train to Vienna. He is a young, romantic American full of hope and ideals about love. She is a French university student, more cynical and cautious with her heart. The pair spends the night wandering the streets of Vienna, learning about the city and each other. In the end, Jesse leaves for home, but Celine has left her mark on him.
Nine years later, Jesse is married with a child, but he hasn’t shaken that encounter. In fact, he wrote a novel about it and is off to Paris for a book tour. There, as he’d hoped, he finds Celine. Despite the distance of geography and time, their feelings are still strong, and they decide to make up for lost time. In the end, with Jesse again scheduled to leave, the film fades out without revealing whether Jesse goes home or not.
Before Midnight catches up with Jesse and Celine now nearing middle age. The movie has its surprises, and is an honest look at the sometimes damaging repercussions of decisions, even if they are made for love. It stands on its own as the story of a couple looking back at where they’ve come from and considering where they should go—and whether or not they make that journey together.
At a screening and Q&A at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, Linklater and Delpy revealed that this third film in the series was a total collaboration between the two stars and director. It was an agreement among them as part of their process that all three had to agree to any plot or character decision. It’s that commitment to character that makes the movie so real. This isn’t a fairy tale, Jesse and Celine act and talk like real people do, there are real relationship challenges and changes, and the stakes are high and relatable.
As they spoke about their collaborative process, Linklater and Delpy continually made the point that precision is not only important, but necessary. Despite scenes feeling so natural, and almost improvised, Hawke and Delpy actually rigorously rehearsed, planned and choreographed every aspect of the script. They would rehearse in the car on the way to set, they would rehearse on the way back to the hotel—any time they were together was a chance to refine the scenes.
When I asked them at what point they stepped back from the writing process and into their respective roles as actor and director, Linklater explained that it was never that cut and dry, and that the roles intersected during all aspects of production. It was no longer “writing”, as such, but an execution of the process.
Fans of the first two films will like that the overall presentation of the story is the same. There is a lot of banter between Jesse and Celine (Hawke and Delpy have great chemistry), and the Greek countryside is spectacular. No “chance encounter” in this one: they’re a real couple with a history now. The film is less romantic fantasy and closer to real life.
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