We met Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) eighteen years ago, in "Before Sunrise," and then again nine years later, in "Before Sunset." Those were both, like many of director Richard Linklater's affairs, day-in-the-life chronicles.
These two young lovers - Hawke a new-agey writer who occasionally displayed vestiges of a wannabe-fratboy, Delpy a staunch feminist with environmentally minded aspirations - connected twice, first in Vienna, in 1995, and then in France, in 2004. Both times, the clock was ticking, a departure imminent. "Before Midnight", the long awaited third entry, finds them in a relationship. The hourglass has been flipped. It's no longer about the time they don't have; it's about the time that lies ahead.
Linklater opens with a particularly ratty-looking Ethan Hawke, showing his age and then some. He's bidding his son adieu after their summer together - our eyes scan around the terminal to confirm that we're in Greece. Linklater savors the reveal to come, but he doesn't make us wait long: After putting his kid on the plane, Jesse walks outside, the ever-steady camera following behind him, and gets into a car with Celine. They've been together since the end of the last film. She's also, not looking her best: Curvier than the last film, and a fair bit plumper than the French bombshell Jesse picked up eighteen years ago. Linklater, later on, will linger on these physical features. He's aware that time has withered a lot more than romantic spark, and he's aware of how significant that is. The scene's last shot is a slow pan over to the twin girls they've had together.
The past catches up with Jesse and Celine, but it also catches up with Linklater. He gives into his influences directly here, first with a 10-minute-plus opening staged in the family car, composed with numerous nods to Abbas Kiarostami. The scene also sets up the film's themes and arc - Delpy is convinced, probably correctly, that Hawke's sudden desire to live in the U.S., near his teenaged son, is "too little, too late," and that this desire is more of an attempt to cop out of their own family.
That's followed by a stagey dinner scene, complete with a portentous 'Greek Chorus.' A pair of octogenarians, a randy middle-aged couple, and two love-struck teenagers phalanx Jesse and Celine, talking endlessly about art theory, romance, and advances in technology, as if these themes weren't already hammered home hard enough. (In a film of borderline-derivative moments, it's this scene that Linklater struggles most to pull off.)
One of these couples have gotten Jesse and Celine a hotel room for the night, so off they go - on a long, Steadicam-tracked walk to their destination. It's here that we finally get that two alone; here that the film begins to emulate the mode of its predecessors; and here that it lives up to the dense, richly scripted potential of its early scenes. When they get to the hotel, Linklater goes into Godard-mode. More specifically, "Contempt."
They fight and claw and scream at each other, seemingly searching for any reason they can not to have sex. (In one of the film's funniest, and maybe most insightful, moments, Delpy finally pulls the straps of her dress back up - she's been topless for a fair bit of time - after Hawke lets loose with one too many grievous comments.)
Linklater's a film ahead of these two. He was in his 30s when he chronicled 20-somethings in "Sunrise," and so on, and so forth. And yes, his aesthetic may be borrowed from the masters - here he squares off the room here as if it were a battleground, much as Godard did. But the tiny details, the little scraps of life that get in the way (whether it's who retains control of cell phone calls with the kid, the way Delpy uses her bilingual talents to shut Hawke out of conversations, or who slacks when it comes to cleaning up the house) are completely authentic.
The series is no longer about time lost; it's about time experienced, time bearing down on you, and the impossibility of anything remaining perfect. It's about a couple characters from a romantic comedy series who are suddenly burdened with all the flaws and tragedies of real life. For better or worse, they're stuck.