It's extremely easy to get disillusioned with the sequel as a concept, with the scales so frequently misaligned between 'worthy expansion' and 'cynical franchising'. Then something like Before Midnight comes along to inspire us all - the third wildly successful encounter with a familiar couple (if we're being pedantic, Bizarro World Jesse and Celine also featured in the excellent but hardly canon philosophical anthology Waking Life). It's both a comforting continuation and adventurous expansion of 2004's Before Sunset and 1994's Before Sunrise - the central concerns has shifted dramatically in our absence, but it all still feels like the latest chapter in a consistent whole. Like Before Sunset, Before Midnight was not strictly speaking needed - the beautifully ambiguous conclusion of the last film was pitch-perfect - but it's sometimes the unexpected sequels that provide the most satisfying dividends.
The latest film is set on an island in the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, following the last days of an extended summer holiday for Jesse (Ethan Hawke), Celine (Julie Delpy) and - spoiler! - their twin daughters before they return to their home in Paris. Much like its predecessors, it is a film of conversations, ranging from philosophical debate to casual banter.
Generally speaking, it's a bit of a compromise between the differing approaches of Sunrise & Sunset, albeit with a delivery still very much shaped by a lot of walking and even more talking. The film deviates from the distinctive structure of the previous entry in the series - the real-time presentation of Sunset is not strictly adhered to, with some edits having the gall to actually skip forward in time. That said, individual sequences are still long and relaxed (there's only three or four main scenes, and a handful of shorter ones). Linklater even channels Abbas Kiarostami in a nearly uninterrupted fifteen-minute long dialogue between the two leads, statically shot from the dashboard of their car (there are one or two brief cutaways that could mask a new take, not that it matters). In a significant shift from established formula, there are other characters too: ones that get an extended chance to express themselves in a lively dinner table discussion. The film does correctly hone in on just Hawke and Delpy for a majority of the running time, however, the plotting ensuring they're sent alone to a hotel for an evening's romantic getaway.
In one earlier scene, Jesse attempts to persuade a couple of friends that the book he's working on is not just about the concept of time. It is, though, a concept and theme pivotal to Before Midnight, much like it was in that other great threequel Toy Story 3. Nine years have past for both ourselves and the characters on screen, and that's vital to the experience. The almost-decade is felt in every exchange between Jesse and Celine - words are loaded with the memories of a long-run of disappointment, turmoil, elation and love. The gap is a worthy narrative device. The specifics are slowly and intriguingly revealed to us, but although the puzzle pieces are not entirely clear at the start (indeed, a discussion about their marital status only occurs much later), we are never in any doubt that these two people's lives have continued on in our absence. Important information is revealed naturally, not through cheap exposition - the script really is a marvel. Greece is also an inspired setting, rich with history both visible (ruins are frequently visible) and invisible - not to mention their troubled current state, briefly but tellingly referenced here. It's the perfect place to explore thematic concerns of mortality, tragedy, inevitability and - ultimately - resilience.
The landscape is as beautiful as the previous films' cityscapes, but let's not kid ourselves: we're here for Celine and Jesse. What a wonderful on-screen couple they are, perhaps peerless in cinema history (Ullman and Josephson from Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Saraband are the only comparative pair that spring to mind). There's a genuineness to the chemistry between Delpy and Hawke, and their performances are so forceful that they ensure we fully believe they are a perfect match. They make for a dynamic comedy duo, too, their exchanges full of witty observances without ever neglecting the drama. Really, Linklater could just point the camera at the two of them shooting the shit and it would be wonderful to watch. But the trio, collaborating on that aforementioned script, ensure it's much more than that.
The story of Jesse and Celine is primarily a classic cinematic romance, but the honeymoon has long since expired. The third act shows the challenges faced when the adolescent passion inevitably wears off. Disparate motivations lead to conflict, varying desires cause disappointment. The two are fundamentally different people - personal and professional concerns refusing to coalesce into complete mutual satisfaction. They get on well on the surface, but underneath their loving exterior there is repressed anger and other strong emotions that need to expressed. It's bound to explode.
And explode it does: the final half hour is effectively one big argument in which they exchange, in no uncertain terms, their frustrations at their lot in life. They wonder aloud about their respective roles in their relationship, and there are some provocative ponderings concerning the problematic nature of traditional gender roles. Is there a long, loving future ahead of them, or will they inevitably separate (the film is constantly comparing and contrasting other couples, old and young)? But even as they argue, there's a passion to their words, a spiritual connection shared even as they hurl increasingly troubling insults at one another. We hope they aren't torn apart, because there is absolutely no doubt they're meant for each other.
Luckily, the romantic whims of cinema prevail in the face of a sometimes harsh reality. The film doesn't ignore the casual cruelties that can go hand in hand with long-term relationships, middle-age and parenthood, but Linklater chooses to end in the only appropriate way: Jesse and Celine once again falling for each other completely.
Is this the end of their story? Possibly, although the mere prospect of spending time with these fascinating, charming individuals in 2022 is an exciting one. Even if this is the end of the Before... series, though, there will be little disappointment as what we have is very much satisfyingly complete. Still, we can only wait and see what the future brings. Before Midnight reaffirms not only the sequel as a concept, but the enduring power of the filmed love story. It's taken them twenty years, but Delpy, Hawke and Linklater have created a cinematic couple for the ages, and completed a genuinely great three act romance.