A common pitfall of filmmaking is the play-to-film adaptation. It rarely works, and what’s more tragic is that a piece of compelling theater often becomes a lifeless bore on screen. Richard Linklater and his Before collaborators Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, may have inadvertently solved that particular puzzle. In the nineteen years we’ve explored Jesse and Celine, their love story has developed the depth and complexity of high theater, and, as is often the case, the third act is the finest.
Their relationship began with an impromptu blind date, set against the dreamy background of Vienna by night (an absurdly romantic scenario, only acceptable in fiction). Years later, the first hints of reality crept in when the pair reunited in sunset-swathed Paris, a little older and wiser and ever-so-slightly more damaged by life. Now those lovebirds, once so angelic, floating high above Austria on a first-kiss Ferris-wheel ride, are now firmly on the ground, seeing each other in the harsh light of day — and marriage.
We find the pair in Greece, and longtime fans of the series will spend the first few scenes basking in their coziness and domesticity. Remember those long walking-talking scenes of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset? There’s still plenty of that here, only now it’s in a station wagon.
Yet, after the flurry of first falling in love, even after settling into the mundanities of married life, Jesse and Celine find themselves crossing yet another milestone — do they stay together?
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
This love story was never guaranteed a happy ending. These two, no matter what glorious setting they wander into (in this case, southern Greece), are prime examples of that old adage: wherever you go, there you are. For all the history surrounding them, it’s their own pasts they (and we) are still tangled up in. It makes for a murky future, and as an audience we want them to stay together, but even we don’t know if they should.
That’s not to say this film is a downer. If anything, it’s a pure joy just watching as Hawke and Delpy jab, parry, and tickle each other; they’re friendship and artistic connection simply crackles throughout every moment. They’re not afraid of silence. They trust each other and trust that the viewer can ride the crests and lulls of natural conversation. It’s that instinctive flow that eases us so deep into their story. You think you’re watching idle chit-chat, but the seeds of drama are scattered all throughout.
There are no wild twists, save for the ones we all suffer through in the course of a long-term relationship. Whereas in so many films we see an idealized couple, so perfectly matched we couldn’t possibly take sides, Midnight tells a truer tale: relationships aren’t always equal, fights aren’t always fair, and sometimes no one is right. And you still need to buy toilet paper. At one point a long-brewing argument erupts, and while one partner is clearly the antagonist, we know these two well enough to know that we’re only seeing a glimpse of a bigger picture.
It’s a little alarming to see so real a marriage presented on screen. As an audience, we’re used to a dramatic or comedic diversion from real life. But when true love, in all its humor and tragedy, reflects back at us, it’s no longer a distraction. We’re engaged and concerned. Having walked this far with Celine and Jesse on their journey, there’s no turning back now — even if we hit a fork in the road.
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics