This remarkable series is born out of the extraordinary collaboration between writer-director Richard Linklater and his two actor-writers, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
This has always been risky, hire-wire filmmaking as it demands astute writing — since there is little on screen other than gorgeous scenery and two actors talking — and intense concentration by actors who must perform long takes while remembering pages of dialogue.
Even more crucially, these actors need to hold our interest over the course of three movies. But they can’t be caught begging for that attention. They can only win audiences over through sheer force of their characters’ personalities and their own abilities on camera.
Such is the success of this venture that the actors’ personalities and those of their characters have become one. So you genuinely look forward to learning all that’s happened in the intervening years.
So bravo to Hawke and Delpy for indelible performances and to Linklater for guiding his actors through the many long takes. Another bravo to the actors for making no concessions to age: the wrinkles and bodily sags are there to commenorate the passing years since they first met while encountering a world of possibilities.
To recap for a moment, in “Before Sunrise” (1995) Jesse meets the Parisian woman Celine by chance on a train traveling through Europe. As a lark, they disembark in Vienna. They walk around the old romantic city, talking, talking, talking and finally experience a romance that ends with a vow to meet again in six months.
“Before Sunset” (2004) picks up the story nine years later when Celine shows up at a Paris bookstore where Jesse is signing copies of the novel he wrote about that experience. As we feared, one of them failed to keep that rendezvous.
Jesse must leave for the airport soon to make his plane back to the States. The movie ends with him missing the flight. Purposely.
“Before Midnight” finds the two a definite couple, living in Paris but on holiday in Greece. (The backgrounds for these films, Vienna, Paris and now Messinia, are certainly romantic and eye-catching.) Jesse has divorced and moved to France to be with Celine with whom he has twin daughters.
As the movie begins, he is putting his young son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) on a plane to return to his mother in Chicago. Bitter over the divorce, the mother has manage to retain full custody other than summer holidays with dad in Europe.
Jesse and Celine then drive back through Greece’s Southern Peloponnese peninsula to a writer’s retreat where they are staying. This long scene in the car runs fully 14 minutes!
This is followed by a leisurely early dinner at the bucolic villa where the couple is staying and a gabfest with an older expat writer (Walter Lassally), their Greek hosts and a younger couple that might well be Jesse and Celine a couple of decades ago.
Everyone chats about literature, love and human connections in the digital age. Then the film comes to the crux of the matter.
Their Greek friends have given the couple a night at a nearby luxury seaside hotel while they babysit the twins. So the two set off by foot — tellingly with reluctance on Celine’s part — for the hotel with more gabbing and then to their room for a night of lovemaking.
What has been a small almost unnoticeable undercurrent now bubbles to the surface. Jesse is bothered by being so absent from his son’s life and makes noises about their moving back to the States to be nearer to him. He also expresses doubts about a job Celine is going to take in Paris.
As they enter their hotel suite, the conversation veers off into dangerous territory. Celine is upset about even the prospect of moving to the U.S. Meanwhile she has never been too thrilled about being the subject for both of Jesse’s novels.
Harsh words lead to even harsher words and pretty soon we wonder if the couple will even survive the night.
My problem here is not with the arguments and dramatic tension but rather how forced it feels. It even begins when an unlikely cell phone call comes in, interrupting their foreplay.
Of course, these kinds of arguments can break out without warning with any couple. But the “Before” series has until this point been so carefully constructed that nothing so abrupt transpires like this.
Yes, the couple touched on the subject earlier in the car, but either one seemingly could defuse the situation, which after all doesn’t have to be settled that night, much less before midnight.
It does bother me that Delpy’s character comes off almost as the villain here. Her complaints are rational enough but she chooses the most callous words and unreasonable approach, enough to seemingly substantiate Jesse’s charge that she is “crazy.”
Even so the sequence, this time shot within the confines of a hotel room and carefully broken up to emphasize the distances between them by editor Sandra Adair, represents the apex of the acting in the series.
It is brilliantly staged and forcefully played with naked emotions by the two thespians. (Might as well use that term from the original Greek.)
Indeed such is the power of the scene that the trio would be more than justified in launching a fourth film sometimes in the next five years or so.
I can only hope that it does not involve a custody battle over the twins.
Opens: May 24, 2013 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production company: Faliro House, Venture Forth, Castle Rock Entertainment
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally, Ariane Labed, Yannis Papadopoulos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriters: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Producers: Richard Linklater, Christos V. Konstantakopoulous, Sara Woodhatch
Executive producers: Jacob Pechenik, Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, John Sloss
Director of photography: Christos Voudouris
Production designer: Anna Georgiadou
Music: Graham Reynolds
Editor: Sandra Adair
R rating, 108 minutes