Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Richard Linklater is one of the best directors working today, a fact often easily neglected simply because he never seems to be showing off. His films are so expressive and confident that they have no overtly showy facets. And yet, hopping genres effortlessly, in films as diverse as Waking Life, School of Rock, and Bernie, he creates films with gorgeous visual subtlety, sparkling dialogue of ever-so-heightened naturalism, and casually rigorous observational power. Unlike a Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino, or Coen brother, Linklater doesn’t wear his virtuosity on his sleeve. He doesn’t and doesn’t have to. He’s simply that good.

His latest film is Before Midnight, a follow up to his 1995 masterpiece Before Sunrise and its just-as-great 2004 sequel Before Sunset. The first film, tender and romantic, introduced us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). In their early twenties, serious and impulsive, they happen to meet on a train crossing Europe and strike up a flirtation. On a whim, Jesse decides to ask her to get off with him in Vienna and spend some time getting to know each other before he has to catch a flight back to the States. Celine, who is on her way back home to Paris, agrees. Together they wander the streets the whole night, engaging in one long winding conversation that’s hopeful and hesitant, offhand and playful. They part without exchanging numbers, left with only memories of one chance connection.

They meet again nine years later. Now he’s a writer on a book tour. His last stop is Paris. She read about his book signing and shows up. They spend the next several hours walking and talking, catching up and wondering what might have been. There’s a moment in Before Sunset in which Hawke looks away and Delpy reaches out to touch his head with her hand. She hesitates, then moves her arm back to her side. It’s an echo of a scene in Sunrise that finds the two of them sitting in a record shop listening booth, shifting their positions and gazes ever so slightly to look at this new person without getting caught doing so and risk letting on just how interested they are in the other. These are films filled with lovely gestures that catch the experience of hesitation in romanticism, where the potential for love eludes for no particular reason other than a pause between total connection and complete comfort.

It has been nine more years, for them and for us. Before Midnight finds them once again spending time together, this time in Greece. Because part of the fun of this new film is finding out what has transpired between them since we last saw them, I’ll avoid specifics and instead focus on the emotions of it all. When they were first on screen together in 1995, they were young, their lives ahead of them. The connection they made was based on philosophies and personalities. When they met again, they still enjoyed talking art and politics, but now as adults in their thirties, experiences, insecurities, and practicalities entered the picture. Now their conversations are richer and longer, not better, but the product of passing time.

Their relationship has changed, even as they engage in conversations around the topic of change, around what they have done with their lives and how much time may be left. There’s a mortality and morality added to their decisions that youthful romance had no time for. These exceedingly truthful films have not grown smarter, but more knowledgeable as these characters have aged. This is a rare Hollywood romance that’s swooningly sensitive, prickly and intimate, in full acknowledgment that a relationship is an evolution that must be cared for and maintained. Differences grow, and so do commonalities. Jesse and Celine, smart, articulate people, have devolved both comfort and conflict so that, as we listen to them, we can watch rhetorical missteps and argumentative fallacies rise up on both sides, and fade away, or not, as the conversations continue.

Unlike the earlier films, relatively trim 80-minute affairs, Midnight runs nearly thirty minutes longer. Rather than one long conversation, this one is loosely structured around three: the first in one unbroken shot through the dashboard of a car, the second around a dinner table with friends, the third down the streets of a Grecian village and into a more private space. What we see play out is nothing less than a virtuosic duet between two actors who have lived with these characters for almost their entire careers and allow their characters’ histories and personalities to fully inform each and every exchange right down to the diction. Hawke and Delpy co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater, who, in his direction, unobtrusively sits with these characters and lets them puzzle through deep thoughts, shallow reactions, ambiguous emotions and complicated concerns. It’s a patience few films allow and which reaps only rich rewards here.

The product of generous collaboration, Before Midnight draws upon a rich fount of subtext and backstory to sketch out another period of time with these people. What started as one affectionate, extraordinarily literate and perceptive indie picture has grown into a three-part small-scale epic about two lives that have intertwined over a nearly twenty year period. It’s a film that’s unblinkingly honest and achingly intimate, and yet all the more romantic for it. It is as funny as it is sad, as warm as it is raw, as comfortable as it is candid. It feels honest and real because Linklater is so humane a filmmaker and his actors so flawlessly genuine. Here’s a film that doesn’t look away for one second in considering the messy emotions between two people who’ve known of each other for a long time. And here’s a film that makes the work of a relationship look worth pursuing. Find people, find someone, you like talking to, the film seems to be saying, and your life can’t be all bad. Great conversation, like great films, like great art, is worth finding and cherishing. This is a great film.

1 comment:

  1. Man, I'm dying to see this film. The first two were awesome. I hope the magic between Ethan and Julie continues in the third.