Jesse and Celine are one of cinema’s most compelling couples, and thanks to the dedicated documentation of their relationship in film of the past few decades, they now feel like old friends. Celine, a flurry of neuroses and one of those volatile, temperamental types; Jesse, the corny and egotistical American who has a bit of a Peter Pan complex. They have their flaws, but that is precisely what makes them so affable. Just like those gloriously blemished souls that you call your friends, you can’t help but see a bit of yourself within the imperfection – and narcissistically you kind of don’t hate it.
We saw the pair first meet on a train in the first film of the trilogy, Before Sunrise, in which they both decided to disembark the rails and travel around Vienna together. Before Sunset then marks their relationship ten years on, during which time Jesse has assumed titles of both husband and father and written a book that uncannily details elements of his rendezvous with Celine. When his book tour brings him to Paris, the two are reunited and after one hell of a catch up the film ends with some promising hip-sashaying to Nina Simone.
And so for the last ten years, we have been left in a state of restrained curiosity, trying to play it cool with the knowledge that there may never be a third installment but equally itching to know what happened after Celine sultrily whispered to Jesse, ‘Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane’ – with his response of ‘I know’ keeping my frosty heart just about warm enough to function ever since.
Our prying eyes are finally rewarded with Before Midnight, which chronicles the modern-day couple as they holiday in Greece with their two daughters and friends. Jesse and Celine are older – Jesse in particular seems to have adopted a world-weary fatigue (although in his weariness he has become strangely far more arousing) and the gravelly tones of someone with a thirty-a-day habit. Celine has also somehow become even more neurotic in her maturity, worrying about her wobbly bits as many do, but also steering her anxieties into surprisingly darker territories.
The pair pepper the narrative with their sometimes playful, sometimes cruel bickering, and these spats best highlight the changes that have taken place. In particular, a drawn-out argument in a hotel room not only makes for slightly painful yet highly intriguing viewing, but also highlights that their relationship is verging dangerously into the realm of vulnerability.
This is one of those films where not a lot happens, but instead viewers look for the action within the nuances of each moment. The film seeks to settle all those questions the last two films had left us with, but true to form it does not usher you in easily. Sometimes you find yourself squinting at the screen slightly, trying to establish what is going on or who the heck all of these people are, but this adds to its beauty and integrity. You are made to keep up with the fast-paced naturalistic dialogue, but then rewarded threefold as you are gradually let in on all of – or at least most of – their secrets and quirks.
Perhaps the most magical scene was when everyone was sat around the alfresco dinner table, telling dirty stories and laughing in the evening sun. The camera puts you in a very privileged position: you are allowed to sit in the company of these interesting people, listen to their anecdotes and sordid tales, but without having to muster an ounce of such dynamism yourself. In reality you would be expected to talk or risk being considered shy – or worse, boring – but this table of strange and amusing folk ask nothing of you but to simply soak it all up.
This is the beauty of such a film. I could rant for hours about the multiple sins that your average romantic comedy spews out, or I could use Before Midnight and its predecessors as an example of how it should be done. This, to me, is how romance should really be portrayed: with arguments and disappointment and flaws. In its truth and honesty, the romance element makes for much more engaging viewing, and in its reality gives me more hope and gushiness than A Walk to Remember could ever come near to.
The Before films are amongst some of my favourite pieces of cinema to date, and the newbie of the bunch has settled in well to such a world of esteem. I absolutely loved it, although as a disclaimer, it must be said that the style will never be to everyone’s taste – its slow-moving pace and real-time narrative being what makes some audiences love the films but also what makes many audiences detest them. Try out the first two before even venturing near Before Midnight, and if you love those even half as much as I do, then the third installment will be an absolute bloody treat.