Richard Linklater's Before Midnight charts the consequences of taking the path not taken 

Goodbye, Young Lovers

Goodbye, Young Lovers

In 1995's Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater cast Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as two smug but intelligent 20-somethings who met on a train and spent a magical evening walking around Vienna before saying goodbye. The characters, Jesse and Celine, wound up reconnecting in 2004's Before Sunset, a remarkable film that countered Sunrise's focus on the intoxicating nature of possibility with a meditation on regret and paths not taken. This time, the characters walked around Paris, but the film ended on Jesse not leaving — skipping his plane back home to his wife and child, choosing to stay with Celine. It was a film both more cynical and more romantic than its predecessor.

Now, in Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse are essentially (if not technically) married, with twin daughters, and this time their walk occurs in a small Greek town where an idyllic summer is winding down. Jesse's son from his broken first marriage has just left, and Jesse regrets that he's not back home to be a better father to the boy; meanwhile, Celine has been offered a dream job in France.

Linklater and his actors (who all share screenplay credit) have their work cut out for them this time. While in Sunrise and Sunset our protagonists had either just met or reconnected after many years, in Midnight they are, and have been, together for some time. As a result, their rather expository chattiness feels awkward at first — they don't really seem like two people who have been living together and collecting unspoken moments for the past nine years. Similarly, a lunch around a table with the group of Greeks and expats with whom they're staying (they're at the home of an aging English writer, played by Oscar-winning cinematographer Walter Lassally, who shot 1964's Zorba the Greek) is a bit too full of clichéd, faux-incisive dialogue about relationships.

After these early missteps, however, the film finds its groove, as Celine and Jesse finally find themselves alone, and their dialogue settles into a dance between the tender and the vicious, with a noticeable bend towards the latter. We know their life is far from perfect; the film never pretends that it isn't. The surprise isn't so much how imperfect that life is, but rather how ordinary it is — and how such ordinariness breeds contempt.

Though it doesn't quite reach the heights of Sunset, Before Midnight works in part because its two stars have continued to age well into their parts. Hawke in particular, whose career as an actor seems to be one long journey from fresh-faced self-absorption to weathered neurosis, does a terrific job tempering Jesse's alpha-male swagger with a kind of haunted quality: Beneath all that confidence, he seems so lost at times you want to give him a hug.

The film truly comes into its own, however, in its final movement. There's little plot to spoil here, but suffice it to say that the question eventually becomes one of whether a relationship, in order to continue, needs to maintain the illusions that it was founded on. We can see the desperation in the face of one actor – the one who needs the illusion to continue — and the wariness in the face of the other — the one who holds it within his or her power to continue it, or to shatter it. As with Sunrise and Sunset, Midnight's very final moment is both beautiful and a lot more ambiguous than it might first seem. This time, however, the possibilities that it holds are potentially more poisonous than intoxicating. 

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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