Thu, 01 Oct 2020

Before Midnight

Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Julie Depy, & Ethan Hawke, & (based on characters created by Richard Linklater & Kim Krizan)
Stars: Ethan Hawke (Jesse), Julie Delpy (Cline), Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (Hank), Jennifer Prior (Ella), Charlotte Prior (Nina), Xenia Kalogeropoulou (Natalia), Walter Lassally (Patrick), Ariane Labed (Anna), Yiannis Papadopoulos (Achilleas), Athina Rachel Tsangari (Ariadni), Panos Koronis (Stefanos)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2013
Country: U.S.
Before Midnight

Before Midnight

You could watch Richard Linklater's Before Midnight as an intense, knowing, and at times harrowing self-contained portrait of middle-age grieving the life we expected to lead, but aren't. Yet, it doesn't stand on its own, but is rather the third entry in a compelling, unique series of films that began with Before Sunrise in 1995 and continued with Before Sunset in 2003. In each of these three films, spaced nine years apart, we follow the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, and Cline (Julie Deply), a Parisian. They fell in love in the first film as idealist twentysomethings walking around Vienna together, then reconnected in the second film as early thirtysomethings finding their way into adulthood. Before Midnight finds them fully ensconced in the adult world, managing often competing responsibilities involving children, careers, and the messy daily chores of domestic life while secretly harboring various disappointments and frustrations that have over the years simmered into near-boiling hatred. The screenplay, which was penned by Linklater and his two stars, is something of a ticking bomb, which makes it a twist on the previous two films, both of which set their romantic plots against a clock (in the first film Cline has to catch an early morning train and in the second Jesse has to catch an early evening flight). Things in the third film are destined to exploded, and explode they do.

But, before things become turbulent, Linklater provides us with a glimpse into the life of the romantic idealists who have settled into a steady, middle-age relationship (they are not technically married, but might as well be). Jesse, having left his wife after the events in Before Sunset, has been living with Cline for almost a decade now. They have 7-year-old twin girls together, and Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), Jesse's son from his first marriage, is now a teenager. Jesse is feeling a hard sense of regret that, having chosen to live in Europe with Cline, he has not been a part of Hank's life except during summers and occasional trips to the U.S. When the film begins, he is dropping Hank off at the airport to return to the States after spending the summer with his dad. They are at the end of a six-week stay in Greece at the home of a famous Greek author (Walter Lassally), which suggests how successful Jesse has become as a literary figure since we last saw him on a book tour promoting his first novel.

The first half of the story, which unfolds over a single day, follows Jesse and Julie's conversation in the car on the ride back from the airport, which is generally good-humored, but is also punctuated with bits of tensions surrounding Jesse's regret at not having been a more substantial part of his son's life and Cline's assumption that he wants them to leave their life in Europe and move to the U.S. This is followed by a dinner at the author's house with various friends, which brings up more simmering tensions regarding romance, sex, and gender roles, thus setting the stage for the film's third act, which finds Jesse and Cline in a hotel room booked by their friends for a romantic final night together before heading home.

Their night at the hotel is anything but romantic, as a sexual tryst is interrupted by a phone call that then sends them into a downward spiral of increasingly intense fighting, much of which is fueled by Cline's lingering qualms about the path her life has taken and the resentment she feels toward Jesse, who appears to be living his dream of being a success author, several of whose books are based on his relationship with her. Their life together has become, ironically, the awful future image that Jesse used to tempt Cline to get off the train with him in Vienna 18 years earlier: "You're married, only your marriage doesn't have that same energy that it used to have, and you start to blame your husband. Think of this as time travel, from then to now." Cline resents being the mother figure expected to pick up after and take care of every one; she resents being Jesse's muse, reduced to an idealization on the page and used to fuel his success; she resents the conflict and guilt she feels about trying to pursue her own career in environmental issues; and she resents what she sees as Jesse's fundamental selfishness. Jesse counters that he has tried to support her, that they divide childcare, and that her accusations are often unfair and misplaced, but at the same time he plays into many of her criticisms, proving himself to be exactly the "closet machismo" she accused him of being at dinner.

All of this makes Before Midnight a very different film from its predecessors, and it also makes it a much more difficult film to watch, especially if you have internalized the romantic notions the characters espoused in the first film and recognize how so many of the fears they had at that time about growing old in a relationship have come to fruition. In a sense, they have become the violently bickering German couple that Cline got up and moved away from on the train in the very first scene of Before Sunrise, the fated event that first brought her and Jesse together. The beautiful telephone scene in that film, where they pretend to talk to their friends on the phone about this amazing romance they're currently having, becomes a distant memory as they unload on each other a decade's worth of anger and frustration and disappointment. Even when it appears that things are going well-that they're connecting and loving-they are always one or two words away from another fight. Accusations fly, mostly from Cline about everything from Jesse's unwillingness to recognize her domestic work, to her suspicion that he has been unfaithful, and the film is suffused with anger in a way that is disheartening, but resolutely authentic. Both Hawke and Delpy have clearly aged from their heyday in the mid-1990s, and they don't try to hide it, which makes their characters feel more real. There is real life in the lines on Hawke's face and the extra weight on Delpy's body.

This, of course, makes the film sound like a despondent slog through relational breakdown, and in some ways it is. As I said, it is not an easy film to watch, but the hard truths that Linklater and his actor-collaborators dig into are important and meaningful. There are times when the fighting takes on too theatrical a quality, and you get a sense that the dialogue is designed primarily to keep the intensity up. Yet, more often than not Jesse and Cline say things that have exactly the kind of biting quality that can only come from two people who know each so well. And that, of course, is the most brutal irony: To truly hurt someone emotionally, to know exactly what buttons to push, you have to know that person inside and out-his or her weaknesses, fears, failings, and embarrassments. And Jesse and Cline definitely know what buttons to push.

Yet, the film ends on a note that could possibly be described as graceful, although you might see it as willfully turning a blind eye on dysfunction. That is, just like the ending of Before Sunrise, it is a kind of litmus test, and how you read those final lines of dialogue as Linklater's camera slowly draws away from the couple we've gotten to know over nearly two decades will say much about how you view long-term relationships and the possibility of true love enduring through the years.

Before Midnight Criterion CollectionBlu-ray
The Before Trilogy Blu-ray BoxsetBefore Sunset is available exclusively as a part of the three-disc "Before Trilogy" boxset, which also includes Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004).
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 (all three films)
Audio

  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround (Before Sunrise

  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround (Before Sunset and Before Midnight

  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements

  • Video discussion featuring writer/director Richard Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, moderated by critic Kent Jones
  • (43 min.)

  • Behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from the productions of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset
  • Audio commentary on Before Midnight by Delpy, Linklater, and Hawke
  • Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, feature-length 2016 documentary by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein
  • After Before, a new documentary by Athina Rachel Tsangari
  • Video conversation between scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone
  • Episode of the radio program Fresh Air featuring host Terry Gross, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke
  • "Linklater // On Cinema & Time," video essay by filmmaker :: kogonada
  • Essay on the trilogy by critic Dennis Lim
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$99.95
    Release DateFebruary 28, 2017

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are making their high-definition debuts in Criterion's new "The Before Trilogy" boxset. Both of those films have remained untouched since their initial DVD releases (in 2001 and 2004, respectively), so their new, restored 2K digital transfers (both made from 35mm interpositives and approved by director Richard Linklater) are much appreciated. Both films look quite a bit better in high definition, with better detail, slightly more robust colors, and an increase in brightness that, while not substantial, still impacts our overall experience watching them. The images are clean and clear, with a subtle presence of grain that attests to their origins on film. The image for Before Midnight is the same as the one that appeared on the 2014 Sony Blu-ray, which is a direct port of the 2K digital film. All three films have DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks; Before Sunrise is presented in its original two-channel mix, while the latter two films both have 5.1-channel mixes. Of course, the majority of all three films is heavily dialogue-based, which leaves little room for surround activity outside of ambient effects and atmosphere, although I noticed that the forlorn piano score on Before Midnight sounds particularly rich.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The previous home video editions of the films in "The Before Trilogy" were largely lacking in supplementary material, especially Before Sunrise, which had only a theatrical trailer, and Before Sunset, which had only a short making-of featurette. Criterion, whose release of these films has been long rumored and highly anticipated, has rectified that with literally hours of supplementary material spread across three discs to contextualize and deepen our appreciation of Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy's unique cinematic achievement.

    Before Midnight is the only film with an audio commentary, this one featuring director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that was previously available on the Sony Blu-ray. It's a good listen and attests to how comfortable the three feel with each other (listening to them laugh and joke through the horrors of the lengthy fight scene is highly entertaining in its own right). However, there is also plenty of new stuff. First up is "The Space In-Between," a fascinating 45-minute video discussion featuring Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, moderated by critic Kent Jones. They discuss all three films, although Delpy doesn't join the discussion until about 20 minutes in (she is also not physically present with the others, but rather joins them via a satellite feed). After Before is a 30-minute documentary about the production of Before Midnight by producer and actor Athina Rachel Tsangari, who shot all the footage during the film's production in Greece. "3x2: A Conversation" offers some academic and scholarly analysis of the trilogy courtesy of two Linklater scholars, Dave Johnson (author of Contemporary Film Directors: Richard Linklater and Rob Stone (author of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don't Run), who spend nearly 40 minutes discussing the interconnections among the three films and their various themes and preoccupations. The interconnections among the films and their emphasis on the nature and perception of time are the subjects of filmmaker :: kogonada's quite moving 8-minute video essay "Linklater // On Cinema & Time." For a truly in-depth look at Linklater's career, you can turn to Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, an 86-minute documentary by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein produced in 2016 for PBS's "American Masters" series. It includes interviews with Linklater, Hawke, Delpy, actor Matthew McConaughey, director Jonathan Demme, editor Sandra Adair, and members of Linklater's family.

    There are also a few bits from the archives, including short promotional featurettes that include behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. There is also a 40-minute episode of the radio program Fresh Air featuring host Terry Gross, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke recorded after the release of Before Midnight.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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