BEFORE MIDNIGHT is the third feature to focus on Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) directed by Richard Linklater and written in collaboration with the leads. She is United Nations, he is United States of Narcissism. Their first outing was the perfectly charming but utterly forgettable BEFORE SUNRISE, about two young people who meet whilst travelling, strike up a conversation and then leave each other, having fallen in love. In the sequel, the perfectly charming but utterly forgettable BEFORE SUNSET, they re-connect. He’s an author who has written about their fleeting relationship; she seeks him out. They spend a day together and talk. For audiences, the good news about the third movie, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, is that it features more than two speaking parts. However, for the most part we watch a couple with twin daughters on holiday in the Mediterranean having a conversation about family verses opportunity and it’s perfectly – wait, are those Julie Delpy’s breasts?
Yes, if Seth MacFarlane gets Oscar hosting duties next year, we know what he’ll be singing about. But if I put that to one side a moment, the best thing about BEFORE MIDNIGHT is that it is a film set in Greece without Greek clichés – you know, plates being broken, bouzouki music, dancing, a general scepticism about the European Union project and bail outs. There is the threat of a bail-out here: Celine wants to leave Jesse if he chooses to move back to America. How dare he want to move back to the States as his teenage son (who lives with his ex wife) discovers girls and thinks about college choices? What about his two daughters with Celine? (I did not believe he would father twins – date them, maybe.)
Here, Jesse talks about his novel, a work-in-progress, in a scene that bears no relation to reality. Writers never discuss works in progress unless they are in trouble; a novel is like the third party in a marriage; you are only open about it after your relationship with it has ended. The novel is apparently about various characters experiencing déjà vu, a feeling I too experienced when the plot of BLUE VALENTINE is evoked as Celine and Jesse go to a love hotel with the promise of ‘his and her’ massages – hers is by a muscular masseur, his is being praised by female fans.
The ante is upped by Jesse’s grandmother having died. Of course, he must go back to America. But Celine does not want to go with him. She is ambivalent about taking a new job but she wants it; it is an expression of her liberty. You can’t help feeling that she supports him financially (‘so zip it’). I didn’t believe that he would not do chores; stay-at-home husbands, even if they are writers, generally do, though not if they are humping the home help. (Somehow, the thought of Philip Roth heading for the Whole Food Market suddenly struck me as unreal.)
Hawke and Delpy have an easy chemistry, but then Hawke appears to have no ambition; he’s a push-over. We are used to him as the slacker (REALITY BITES) and both his film stardom and literary career appear to have no raison d’être. You watch his contemporary Matthew McConaughey and you see his clear attempt to be the next Paul Newman fail dramatically. But then he pulls out a MAGIC MIKE, gets sexually assaulted (off-screen) in THE PAPERBOY, appears to be having fun (evidenced by the trailer) in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and you think this guy has re-charged his mojo. For the most part, Hawke makes two kinds of movies: the ones where he talks a lot and smiles charmingly (such as the BEFORE films) and thrillers where he is eclipsed by his co-star (TRAINING DAY, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13). That’s not a career, that’s child support. Occasionally, he turns up in quasi-science fantasy movies (GATTICA, DAYBREAKERS and THE PURGE) where he is supplanted by the genre. The audience never goes to a film because Ethan Hawke is in it, which must be pretty rough. Delpy on the other hand has at least graduated to film direction (TWO DAYS IN PARIS, SKYLAB). When at a dinner, Celine is praised for being more interesting than Jesse, it felt like the truest moment in the movie.
The enjoyment of BEFORE MIDNIGHT is contained in long takes of the couple talking. We feel like we’re in their moment, eavesdropping. People may enjoy Delpy’s performance: that she is no push-over, that Celine puts her needs above Jesse’s as a constituent part of the relationship. Meanwhile, Hawke is only charming when Jesse tries to win Celine back. In reality, whenever couples try to re-enact their courtship ritual as happens here, you know it is time for the end. If there is money in it, I imagine a fourth film, BEFORE MIDDAY in which Jesse turns up early to take his daughters out having split with Celine; the only logical outcome from this movie. A bit like that Paul Dano film, FOR ELLEN, the best Ethan Hawke film that Hawke never made.