This time of year, there are few things so delightful as watching a film that carries you away to a time and place other than bitterly cold Michigan. By measures of exotic locales, the coast of Greece does quite nicely.
Before Midnight is the third collaborative installment from director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. It was nominated for best adapted screenplay at the 86th Academy Awards, and while the film didn't bring home an Oscar, it is splendid. But being the third in a series, there’s a considerable amount of backstory. Here’s the short version:
In Before Sunrise, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are idealistic, penniless twenty-somethings who meet as strangers on a train from Budapest. They have an instant connection and decide to ditch their plans and spend the day in Vienna--falling in love. The film concludes with them going their separate ways but vowing to see each other in 6 months. Given the serendipitous nature of their first meeting, they opt not not to exchange contact information.
We catch up with Jesse and Celine next in Before Sunset, nine years later. Jesse has just published a fictional account of his night spent with Celine in Vienna, and lo and behold, she shows up at one of his promotional events in Paris. The two haven’t seen each other since that day nearly a decade ago, but they realize their connection is still as strong as ever. The film ends with Jesse and Celine contemplating whether to again drop their plans to be together. Jesse is in a difficult marriage, but has a young son and Celine is currently dating. What will they choose?
Before Midnight doesn’t leaving us wondering for long. The film opens with Jesse putting his teenage son on an airplane bound for the states after a summer spent together in Greece. Celine and Jesse are together, and they have twin daughters. Unlike the previous installments, Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine not in the raptures of a romantic fling, but in the daily nitty gritty of family life in your forties. The first two films in the series were, as Ethan Hawke put it, “all about romantic projection.” This time, their challenge was different:
“We needed to try to address the harder, more difficult aspects of daily life and what it means when you get what you want, and what you do with what you want when you have it, and do you still want it?”
With a total of 8 slow moving scenes, there’s no sense of spectacle here, nothing to make your eyes pop. The film stands on smart dialogue, and the conversation throughout is imbued with a kind of relational vulnerability that is absolutely arresting.
As they wind down their family vacation in the southern Peloponnese, Jesse and Celine tease each other, laugh at inside jokes, and haggle over old disagreements. Meanwhile long simmering frustrations and fears over work, sex, child rearing, and a host of other issues begin to explode onto the screen. Accusations and admissions of past infidelities fly as Jesse and Celine ultimately have to decide if they still want to be together. The question of whether or not they do is strongly hinted at but not answered in the film’s final scene.
As my wife and I discussed the movie, I found myself coming back to this: Jesse and Celine’s way is hard. They've made a series of difficult and consequential choices. Jesse made the gut-wrenching decision to break up his marriage and miss much of his son’s life. They chose to bring their daughters into the world without the security of marriage (though they may have a common-law marriage). They've carried a laissez faire attitude toward monogamy into their current relationship, though it hangs on them like dead weight. To the film’s great credit, there’s no effort to mask the cost of these decisions.
I’ll spare you all the social science on cohabitation, as Anna Shafer has covered that well on this blog already. Suffice it to say that simply living together can’t compete with marriage in terms of beneficial relational and personal outcomes. Obviously, marriage is no panacea for relational problems; we have to be committed to growth and to becoming the very best version of ourselves with marriage. But Jesse and Celine’s relational instability seems directly linked to their ambivalence about marriage and their openness to call the whole thing off. Ironically, their commitment to personal freedom clearly gnaws away at their happiness.
Sex plays a prominent role in these three films, and along with some pretty salty languange is enough to earn R ratings. But Before Midnight’s sex is frustrated by argument. I don’t think that detail was a mistake. In describing what sex communicates, Tim Keller put it this way:
Sex is a way of saying to another person, 'I belong completely, and exclusively, and permanently to you.' And that's something you can only say inside marriage. And when you use sex to say that, it really is incredibly valuable and rich.
Nothing in Jesse and Celine’s relational history would indicate that their love has risen to the heights of completeness, permanence, and exclusivity. Their way remains hard. Their love is not enough.Media: