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Film Review: Before Midnight with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke

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.

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29 Comments

  1. Sounds like an interesting watch. I’m not sure if I’ve even seen Before Sunset (definitely seen Sunrise though) but, being in a flawed relationship myself I’m always interested to see how others manage theirs.

    • I wanted to step into the film and shout at her, “Look at what you have! Work with what you have! Don’t imagine all the things that are wrong because you feel unhappy about yourself…” It was interesting the way he tried to get her to snap out of it but couldn’t. And at the same time it was clear that the both had faults.

    • It stays with you doesn’t it? I wasn’t sure when I first finished it. But I liked the fact that it was, yeah, real, as you say, and raw is a good description. Kinda like the ugliness I felt about it, but it was a powerful kind of ugliness – it’s there in us all, our needs as individuals against the commitment of a relationship.

      • Denise – Very, very true. I enjoyed that they loved and were committed to each other, but were very different in some ways. And, of course, they had their own personal needs that weren’t being completely met. Still, they worked through it. Some people stay together – maybe because of dynamics – but still have drag out fights and real struggles. I appreciated that this movie showed what love can really be like, especially as we age and grow – all while dealing with the challenges of being a parent. – Shanna

      • Yeah… I was afraid for them though. (Can’t get realer than that! Sympathising over non-existant people…) I could see it happening again, because her insecurity was so deep rooted, and he didn’t seem to know how to address it – he could appeal to her sense that there probably wasn’t someone better out there for her. But he didn’t seem to be able to touch the core of her. It seemed like a lull before another storm. But as you say, if people have that dynamic, maybe they are both happy with it (I hope! I’m such a daft romantic from that point of view.)

      • Hi, Denise,
        Are you English or Canadian? I notice your proper spelling. You hit the nail on the head… yes, she is insecure and doesn’t know what else is out there. He seemed disconnected from her core being, yes, yes. But, they seemed “content enough.” Passionate enough to fight as they did. I am sure there are many people who wonder if there is someone more ideal out there for them. She kept trying to leave, but couldn’t… so maybe that was on her mind. There was no internal dialogue, just verbal dialogue and their actions…. I am so glad you blogged about this movie. One of the few movies this year that really made me *think.* What else do you recommend? If you like TV series, the Bletchley Circle and Call the Midwife are complex and interesting! Best – Shanan

      • I am English (Chinese) but for some reason I often like films that are Canadian… or Japanese! I don’t know why. The other movie I really enjoyed this year (in a thought provoking way), even more than Before Midnight, was Stories we Tell. I had to get that on Distrify because it went out of the cinemas before I could get to it.

      • I will look up Stories We Tell, Denise. Thank you for the movie tip – I really enjoy independent and foreign films and will keep checking your blog for recommendations. I am funny in the sense that I prefer British shows and love BBC, though I am American. 🙂 Have a nice Sunday. Best, Shanna

  2. “The question being – which do we allow to prevail? The ugliness or the light?”

    How old are you, Denise (rhetorical question, requires no answer). That’s something an old, wise person says.

    The answer, of course, is, that we do have the choice to allow the light to prevail. If we have the courage and will.

    • I think we need both light and darkness otherwise they are meaningless without the contrast. I really appreciated that the film went down into some quite ugly feelings – risking I think alienating those who have “grown up” with the franchise and might have been expecting something lighter and more magical. In showing these darker emotions, though, they were able to come up to the light, which is important too. If you keep things dark then they stay dark and there is no chance of improving things.

  3. I haven’t seen these films, but I always like your reviews. I have a feeling this movie really shows how aging and relationships can look attractive, like you say, the way we imagine other peoples’ lives as more interesting (even though ugly and flawed) than our own. I want to see all three! Thank you! Oh, and I know that quote. I just didn’t know it was Eleanor Roosevelt’s! How true! I think of that quote pretty often too!

  4. I haven’t seen any of these films but have heard of them and they sound very interesting. Reading this review I would really like to see them now, although I still have three films from Lovefilm which we’ve not had the time to watch and I’m paying each month for them to just sit here! Crazy.

    I’ve just done my last post until the new year Denise and I’m sigining off now until then, so I wanted to wish you and your LDs a wonderful, Happy Christmas and a New Year filled with every good thing. Look forward to catching up in 2014 🙂

    • I know sometimes I force myself to watch a film just to make sure I get my money’s worth. Usually it is worth it but it’s the making myself start in the first place.

      Happy Christmas to you and your family too! I hope you have a great time with your family and want to hear all about what you have been up to.

  5. Denise I throughly enjoyed reading your review and your telling perspective. The two have given me some insight into who you are as an individual, woman, and writer. I have seen the films (although it has been awhile). I love films that delve into the human condition. You are English (Chinese) and what comes to mind is my love for the Chinese new wave film movenent of the 90’s e.g. Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Duo starring my favorite Chinese actress Gong Li. I found many of these films to be quite powerful in exploring the darker realms of the human condition against the historical backdrop that contrbuted to many of the “ugly” disparities between men and women. …. please forgive me, I meant to discuss your films, but went in this direction. Peace and Light.

    • The films are only ever a vehicle for discussing the human condition.

      I have always found Chinese films or the idea of them too powerful. When I was younger and hadn’t found my identity yet I felt afraid that I had been so lucky to be born in a country and history not as harsh as my own and I didn’t dare look. But now I am more aware of art that speaks of the human condition in general and not necessarily as a literal history, I should give them another go.

      Thanks for your interesting comment!

      • And thank you for opening up a interesting conversation on the romantic interplay in the film between men and women. I just reblogged a post with a video clip of a scene from the film Chelsea Walls … “the poem”. I love it. It explores the intimacy, ambiguity, and longing inherent to our passions and desires as partners. Please check it. And let me know what you think of it. I think the theme of the poem, is an element I strive to capture in my own poetic art and verse.

  6. Sounds interesting, Denise, but it doesn’t sound like my kind of movie. I haven’t seen the first movie either. I wonder whether that matters?

    • I think from the Amazon reviews these are most definitely not for everyone – a handful of unfortunate reviewers there who thought they were going to get something funnier and more romantic.

      The first two are more accessible films I think as the protagonists aren’t complaining so much!

      • Oh, is this the third film in the series? I prefer sci-fi as a genre so tend not to be so enthusiastic about melodramatic films involving characters with complex relationships. I’m sure there are some exceptions though and I will take note of this film. I see it got a very high score on imdb of 8/10.

  7. I’ve never seen the original film, so have added both to my LoveFilm list.

    I also love the Eleanor Roosvelt quote, although find it fascinating (and disappointing) how little people in the main actually discuss ideas… most folk would rather talk about what they’ve been watching on telly or gossip about others.

    • Yeah – I find the worst thing is when people go on and on about people you don’t even know! And I am a bit embarrassed because that is what I used to be like, a little bit. So I find it unbearable when people still do it and haven’t realised that there is so much more to talk about than what is immediately visible in your own life.

  8. I’ve seen the first film, got the second to watch (but haven’t got around to it yet) and am most intrigued to read about the third. I find I’m only interested these days in artworks that properly engage with the real – with how things really are rather than how we’d like them to be. It’s funny to think that the whole idea of realism began by – and attracted huge amounts of criticism by – showing the uglier side of reality, the truth about poverty in the lower classes (as opposed to the chocoloate box pastoral images that tended to be the norm before then). Critics in the 19th century were appalled by realism because literature was supposed to be uplifting and informative – it was supposed to instruct us how to live, not show us how we actually did it. But I applaud all works of art that hold up a mirror. If we don’t understand how hard it is for us to get the life we want, how will we appreciate the good moments when they come? If we don’t realise what it actually means to live through the human condition, how difficult and demanding it is, we’ll never have sympathy for ourselves or our fellow human beings. So hurray for films that aren’t afraid to embrace the reality of relationships where love and hate always intermingle. Fascinating review, Denise!

    • Yes, although fashions swing back and forth I think there will always be a strong instinct in people for both points of views. I can see that if someone feels insecure about the world around, they might want and even need that uplifting aspect. Being brought up by my mother to basically fear the world, and having no coping mechanisms passed down to me, as a child and teenager I was desperate for my art to be “beautiful” and “nice”.

      Sympathy is an important thing, as in understanding that we all suffer and struggle, if we let ourselves, and this is a parallel thing, something we have in common to link us and make us all equal with each other.

      Hope you are having a good Boxing Day!

      • I had very much the same experience in being brought up to fear the world. My parents also reacted as if it were completely inexplicable that bad things happened. And my mother was hopeless at holding fear or anxiety in – she had to give it back, with interest, to whoever was nearest. All this to say I know exactly what you mean about needing art to be beautiful and nice. I wanted mine to explain everything. I became an academic because I wanted to ‘understand everything’ – I even thought about it like that to myself! Ten long years in therapy and I suppose now my goal is acceptance. Some days I get there, others not. But it definitely accounts for my fascination with realistic realism. That being said, I don’t particularly like Eastenders or any of the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas that to me seem too melodramatic (though I daresay they represent a reality to someone, somewhere). My Boxing day is going along fine, thank you – nice and quiet. Do hope yours has been just the kind of day you wanted, too. 🙂

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