I feel happier with this film in the world…in my life. I’d extend that to include Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the two previous films in this ongoing romantic experiment. Before Midnight is no less essential. What began as a chance encounter that led to a second chance is now a mature examination of permanence, happiness, aging, regret, and sacrifice. It’s hard to improve upon perfection and the smartest thing Director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (Who co-wrote the script with Linklater) do is avoid trying. They’re not out to top themselves, just match. They also know better than to simply repeat the style, rhythms, and structure that worked so well before. It’s a difficult balance and the results are astonishingly confident.
Sunrise was high on first love and infatuation. There was plenty of walking and talking but it was loose and free. Sunset was filled with longing. The walking and talking was back, but as if to savor what had been missed the film is in real time. There’s a real sense of time running out. Midnight mixes bits from those with its own new ideas. Time isn’t running out, but it might be catching up. Three of Midnight’s longest scenes take place in the confinement of a car, a hotel room, and a dinner table suggesting a small loss of freedom. Celine and Jesse’s lives have changed and therefore so have the themes. They still have philosophical debates and talk about love in beautiful and poetic language but their concerns are more practical these days. Age has little patience for abstraction.
These films are more than just people blabbing and showing off their college degrees. The first two films obviously add years of background and shade in some depth, but Midnight would work well as a standalone. It’s a testament to how well they fill in the gaps of missed time without inundating the audience. It’s also devastatingly mapped out. There are set-ups you’re not even aware of that payoff richly. They’re not obvious but under and between the lines, the glances, and the emotions. But it doesn’t even need that extra layer because the surface is so honest. Hawke and Delpy still have amazing chemistry (top 5 all-time chemistry), and their performances are nuanced and true. There are conversations here that everyone has had and the acting and directing make them seem so natural.
I love how persistently the titles have maintained their literalness while working as fine metaphors. The ending is once again ambiguous and powerful with a light score that evokes the waltz from Sunset. I’m sure there are even more parallels I missed. Romance can take many forms and this film is but another snapshot. Where does love fit in the long term? Can you really just grow old and be happy? The movie wisely, and at times comically, tries to find out. It’s even self aware with a number of meta jokes without being too cute about it. Personally I tend to prefer more stylish films, films with more camera movement or what have you. But this film is so great in so many other ways I can’t help but fall in love.