There’s a special subset of truly magical, meaningful films that can be revisited over time and still manage to take on new meaning. This happens to be one of the many criteria of a classic, and director Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is nothing short of that word, snugly residing among the elite group.
I must preface this by saying that, while I’m flattered you’re reading my thoughts about Before Midnight, a movie I truly loved, I urge you not to watch a single trailer for the film, to avoid all movie stills and to stay away from reviews that reveal plot points. Heck, don’t even look at the movie’s Wikipedia page; even that, in a mere three sentences, says far, far more than you want to know. Revenge and Linklater’s Before trilogy: dishes best served cold. I won’t be revealing any plot details below, so feel free to read on without apprehension.
I’ve been enamored with Linklater’s films since I first saw Before Sunrise two years after its 1995 release, back when I was a naive 16-year-old working as a video store clerk. I’d never left the country, never had a boyfriend, never even been kissed, but that film spoke to a yearning in me that no amount of Jane Austen or Jack Kerouac ever could. The idea of meeting an attractive stranger on a train in a foreign place — of acting upon an immediate connection, exploring a strange city and sharing deep, exciting conversation — was something so intensely relevant to my desires at the time, I could hardly breathe as the narrative unfurled. I think I watched it four or five times in a row; I was awe-struck.
Before Sunrise was, for me (and may others, clearly), the birth of something of a celluloid best friend — your oldest and most bosom buddy, the pal who routinely utters aloud the precise thing you’re thinking, always relentlessly challenges you to explore your actions and reactions. The idea of filming a largely theatrically minded movie — shot wholly on location in long takes with two actors (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, as Céline and Jesse respectively), of creating something wondrous and sparse and instantly relatable, and then ending it in such painfully ambiguous fashion — was a new and inspiring concept to me at the time. I’m certain it informed the way I viewed film as a whole, but it also carved a void that proved impossible to fill.
Once the trio’s next installment, Before Sunset, released in 2004, I was of theater-going age and means. I anxiously awaited its arrival in my sleepy upstate New York town, and saw it on opening day. I went in cold, and, from the first scene, proceeded to quell the most violent waves of fangirl adoration I’ve ever encountered. I missed the charming, thoughtful, boyish American writer Jesse and the playful, neurotic, idealist French Céline. I missed their chemistry, their jargon, the subjects they touched upon while languorously strolling about ancient cobblestone streets. And — wonder of wonders – nine years later, they were again dealing with all the troubles I was encountering at the time: societal pressure versus personal desire, the complications ushered by duty and love, the yearning for a recently lost youth and innocence, the terror of making one’s place in the world. And the ending — the ending! Someone in my audience threw popcorn at the screen. I sympathized, but only because the credits rolled. I hungered to live inside the movie; I never wanted it to stop. All at once, between two movies and nine years, Linklater had officially created an incomprehensible urge to know what came next paired with seemingly insurmountable expectations for it to deliver.
And so, another agonizing nine years later, my expectations were tested when Before Midnight pre-screened for credentialed media of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Whether Linklater and his co-writers/actors Delpy and Hawke will make this every-nine-year production a regular occurrence remains to be seen, but what has become abundantly clear is this: The series ages like a damn fine wine. In fact, it’s safe to say that Before Midnight is the best of the trilogy thus far.
Once again, it brilliantly displays the ability to mature along with its audience, creating (both literally and figuratively) a celluloid version of the most interesting dinner party you’ve ever attended, serving up glorious scenery, incredible conversation, sympathetic characters, sparkling chemistry and eerily spot-on subject matter. This film’s setting just happens to be the gorgeous seaside locales of Greece, but its subjects are objectively less sunny: Mars and Venus complexities, sustaining relationships in a modern world, grappling with the unrealistic notions of soul mates and romantic love, reconciling the influence of one’s parents while attempting to parent — these are just a few of the items invited to dine at the table that is Linklater’s spirited cinematic conversation.
And you, the honored guest, will scrape your plate clean and immediately ask for seconds. Truly, Linklater’s Before films are their own genre, an experience so personal you almost want to seek out the original print and hide it in a cave, Gollum-style, because who else is truly going to understand your Precious the way that you do? Conversely, these films also happen to be incredible conversation-sparkers. Therein lies the rub.
If you’ve yet to experience one of the Before films, prepare to sacrifice an afternoon to a double feature: You’ll hardly be able to endure the end of Before Sunrise without immediately following it with Before Sunset. Those were a long nine years, twice over, but whether you’re new to the material or you’re a weathered fan, worn thin by years of tapping your heels in anticipation, Before Midnight more than absolves Linklater, Delpy and Hawke for the tease.
Before Midnight opens in theaters May 24.
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