Reel Women: ‘Before Midnight’ Is the Beautifully Honest Relationship Film You Need to See
Richard Linklater brings his ‘Before’ trilogy to close this week with ‘Before Midnight,’ in which we pick up with Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) 10 years after the second film. ‘Before Sunrise’ found our characters making an unlikely, serendipitous connection; ‘Before Sunset’ examined how they evolved 10 years later, and whether that initial connection could stand the test of time; and ‘Before Midnight’ gives us an incredibly honest portrait of relationships.
Fair warning, this piece comes with spoilers, etc. So if you’re hoping to avoid reading any plot points about ‘Before Midnight’ before you see it, turn back now.
Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy works on a level to which other trilogies should aspire: each film can stand alone as its own work of fiction with its own narrative and themes, and yet all three films work beautifully as a trilogy, in which all of those thematic threads stretch out and tie themselves from film to film; each one is great, but made greater by the existence of its predecessor. By now you’re familiar with the story: Jesse and Celine meet in ‘Before Sunrise’ as college students; both naive and pretentious about relationships, they fall in love over the course of one night. In ‘Before Sunset,’ the pair meet again when Jesse is out promoting his book in Celine’s native France — Jesse is now married, Celine is single, and the pair have both evolved separately; Celine is more pessimistic now, while Jesse, compelled to win her over, seems infinitely more optimistic.
Each of these films rely largely on incredible dialogue, following Celine and Jesse as they walk (and walk, and walk, and sit, and walk) and discuss their often divergent views on life and love. ‘Before Midnight’ continues their journey as the pair, now together and with two children of their own, vacation in Greece. The film works first and foremost as a relationship study: over the course of one evening we watch as Jesse gently entertains the idea of moving back to the US to be closer to his son, but Celine has her career in France and doesn’t think she should be made to sacrifice. This is the driving conflict of the entire film, taking the tired “will they or won’t they” trope and applying it to a couple that may or may not be falling apart right before our eyes.
Their arguments are achingly honest, illuminated by a scene in a fancy hotel room where the two stop fooling around and start fighting; Delpy’s topless body goes from bearing the promise of sex to insinuating many opposites, among which are her motherhood, her confidence, and the way she feels as though she’s being objectified. And it’s not objectification in the traditional sense — it’s this idea that even as a strong woman who has juggled her dream career with raising the children of a man to whom she’s also dedicated herself for 10 years, she could be viewed as such an easily movable object. What’s more poignant is that you can see both sides of their argument, both from a relationship perspective and a gendered one.
There’s a wonderful lead-up to this earlier in the film, when Linklater breaks with the ‘Before’ tradition of having Celine and Jesse’s interactions (mostly) exist as the sole interactions of the film: the couple are having dinner with a whole group of friends, with the main topics being relationships, sex and the difference between women and men The latter is a tired point of discussion from romantic comedies to stand-up comics, but here there’s such charming perceptiveness. The wife of a friend tells a story about her mother, a nurse who tended to coma patients as they first woke up. The first thing a woman would do upon waking, she says, was ask about her family and loved ones, while the first thing a man would do upon waking is make sure his genitals were still intact and functional.
This entire conversation sets up the later argument between Celine and Jesse — women are more family oriented and willing to sacrifice, thus facilitating what Celine perceives as this idea that it’s become de rigeur to assume that women will make these sacrifices with little resistance. Jesse, on the other hand, believes Celine to be overreacting, telling her that she is melodramatic and overly emotional to a fault before labeling her as “the mayor of crazy town.” While both parties make valid and sometimes rational points, their fighting highlights a very real societal divide: this idea that women are too emotional and men are too rational; women are crazy, men are robots. And there’s some truth to that idea, though it largely feels as though it’s one that’s been perpetuated by society in half-joking fashion.
What ‘Before Midnight’ does is take a very real, very threatening fight between a couple, and it shows us how both of them are right, wrong and everything in between. There is no “this” or “that”; there is always “other.” There’s a saying that goes something like, “There are three sides to every story: his side, her side and what really happened.” We can never be the walls built around the rooms in which we fight with our loved ones, and therefore we can never have such amazing clarity, but ‘Before Midnight’ allows us to be the fly on the wall in Celine and Jesse’s room.
Like its predecessor, ‘Before Midnight’ continues to show how two people evolve and the way that evolution can affect a relationship. As people we find another person to whom we can tie ourselves, but what happens when our own threads begin to change shape? Will we remain tied, or can we adapt and form new knots, fighting to hold on as hard as we can? This is the question that lingers at the end of the film, but oftentimes we don’t place value on the answer to that question, instead focusing on all the petty arguing and blame we placed in the hour leading up to it. Such is ‘Before Midnight.’