Jesse (Ethan Hawke, Sinister) — the writer we’ve watched meet, fall for and settle down with Celine (Julie Delpy, 2 Days in New York) — tells some colleagues about a story idea of his. It involves a group of characters with unique quirks of perception: One has déjà vu, someone else has no facial recognition, another remembers everything, and so on. And they all see the same movie, but have far different reactions.
One’s receptiveness to the three films might have a lot to do with where you were in your life when you were introduced to Jesse and Celine. Its fans tend to feel strongly connected. Less-smitten moviegoers might wince from the characters’ considerable pretensions. The range of reactions seems only appropriate for these films, decidedly existentialist works that have as much to do with time and transience as they do with love.
Opening Friday, the film is the profound and profoundly satisfying conclusion to a story that began back in 1995 when American Jesse met French Celine on a train heading for Vienna. As Before loyalists know, that initial meet-cute blossomed into another encounter nine years later in Paris. And that brings us up to date.
Before Midnight explores life after those starry-eyed gazes have worn off. Jesse and Celine, now essentially married and living in Paris with twin 7-year-old girls, are vacationing with friends in southern Greece. Despite the gorgeous environs, troubles are brewing. Jesse wants them to move to the U.S. so he can play a bigger role in the life of his son, the product of a previous marriage. Celine is pondering whether to take a cushy government job.
The film is composed of Jesse and Celine in long talks during long takes. After all, these are smart and articulate people engaged in a verbal dance that winds inexorably toward an epic argument. Before Midnight is talky; there are only a handful of scenes. The screenplay, which Linklater wrote with Hawke and Delpy, easily could be a stage play. But with the exception of a dinner sequence that plays a bit excessive, the movie does not drag or feel anything but authentic. Its honesty and sharpness are remarkable.
Equally amazing is the depth of commitment from the principal actors. Hawke and Delpy know these characters inside and out, foibles and all, and their performances are fearless. They are not always likable — he’s a passive-aggressive manipulator, she’s the volatile “mayor of crazytown” — but they are always understandable. Before Midnight is witty, poignant and searching — and the perfect conclusion to Linklater’s trilogy. —Phil Bacharach