Eleven years on from the end of Before Sunset, when we left thirty-somethings Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) staring at each other in an apartment in Paris wondering, “What next…?”
The beginning scene is Jesse saying an awkward his teenaged son as he sends him back to his ex-wife in Chicago. The boy is polite, sensitive and a musical genius, and you can feel Jesse’s anguish as he realises that his plans to see his son in an important recital are not going to work out.
Following this, we are back on familiar Before… territory, as Jesse and his current wife, Celine drive from the airport across a Greek island to their next destination, adorable twin girls asleep in the back. This is the warm, tender banter, rippling with half buried jokes, that we are used to, from two people who displayed a natural affinity and understanding from the moment they met.
From here, Celine and Jesse end up at a dinner party with a literary group of Jesse’s. To die hard fans, the introduction of new people is a radical, nay, shocking! departure from the expected format of two people wandering around and somehow making a compelling spectacle of their ponderings. This fan for one was a little dubious about the newcomers, who I found annoying. They’re the sort of people I’d find annoying in real life, being the sort of crowd given to making profound announcements about the state of the world, and how we should live our lives.
Now, I love a good discussion, and one of my favourite sayings is Eleanor Roosevelt’s
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
However, to me an idea has to be grounded in experience, in effect, to have an argument behind it. To me, this dinner party discussion was just so much blah. The only moment which did cause me to perk up was a small hint of really quite ugly tension between Celine and Jesse.
Yes, that’s right. I’ll say it again: ugly. While Sunrise and Sunset basked in the gorgeousness and whimsy of set and cast, Before Midnight is rather harsher. And while a thread holding all three films together is realism and authenticity, what this means in characters who have lived with each other for a long time, and with their own insecurities for even longer, is quite a different thing.
So yeah, the two got a bit narky with each other, and I found it quite uncomfortable because it felt so real. It felt like scenes that I have been through before in my life, right down to the way each genuinely thought that their side of the argument was true, when with hindsight, I wished that they could just come out of where they were anchored deep inside their own viewpoints and see the whole picture.
The clever, real part of the film is the way that these conversations arise from traits in the characters that were always there. Celine has always been the one to sink into excessive introspection, to find an interpretation that was not intended or a problem that was not there, while Jesse was the more sedate one, happy to take life at its surface value. Suddenly, this dynamic tips further the other way; the way Jesse has always reacted to Celine is no longer enough to get her out of the emotional mire she has travelled into, and it exposes perhaps his inadequacy as a husband, as a person always lost in his stories and books.
This is the dynamic that relationships take; the slow attrition that attacks all partnerships. The question being – which do we allow to prevail? The ugliness or the light?
I admired the shift in tone to allow ugliness in. The danger when portraying realism is in making things more attractive than they are, in order to attract people to see your work of art. Similar perhaps to the way we might feel that others have a more attractive, exciting life than we do. I really admired Julie Delpy for letting us see that she is now very physically different from the pert, carefree twenty and thirty-something of the past. But there was also something honest and revealing in the way both characters went into less attractive, more worn parts of their personas – Hawke and Delpy have writing credits on the film and this was a very interesting exploration of what it is to be an individual and what it is to be in a relationship, with no easy answers.