There have been no massive ad campaigns, no promotional tie-ins, no midnight screenings to kick off the recent premiere of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Yet for loyal fans (like myself) of its predecessors Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), it may be the cinematic event of the summer. And just as Trekkies can be counted on to scrutinize every detail of Star Trek: Into Darkness to see whether it passes muster—proving that die-hard fans are often the harshest of critics—devotees of Linklater’s quietly brilliant romantic dramas may find themselves both excited and nervous to sit down with this latest installment in the saga of Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke), who met by chance on a train to Vienna nineteen years ago and who are still struggling to stretch the limits of time and space in order to maintain a relationship. Just as Celine and Jesse are forced to consider whether the connection they first shared together two decades ago is still there, we find ourselves looking anxiously to Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke to make us fall in love with these characters yet again.
For this reason, the experience of watching Before Midnight is frequently as distressing as it is satisfying. As we follow Jesse and Celine over the course of their last day in Greece, where they’ve spent a seemingly idyllic summer, we’re made privy to the intimate details of the life they have made together as well as to the bitterness, guilt, and resentment stirred up by its wake. Jesse worries that by moving to Paris to live with Celine he has missed out on watching his son grow up; Celine complains that her professional goals have been sacrificed in order to make Jesse’s success as a novelist possible. While their dialogue occasionally covers the kind of philosophical ground they treaded scintillatingly in the earlier films (they discuss aging and death, and the gap between romantic illusion and reality), it feels as if the worldview of the films has shrunk: we’re still watching two intelligent, fascinating characters talk out their problems, but the talk has turned, somewhat disappointingly, to practical matters like childcare and domestic responsibility. (Will the next film find them arguing over whose turn it is to take out the garbage?) I commend Before Midnight for taking a more clear-eyed approach to love—for subjecting its characters to the banal trials of everyday life—but I miss the romantic yearning of the earlier films, as well as their sense of romantic and philosophical possibility.
Learning to re-calibrate one’s disappointed expectations, though, turns out to be one of the things Before Midnight is all about. At the film’s end, we find Celine and Jesse grappling with the realization that their relationship, founded as it may be on the most intense kind of intellectual and romantic connection, is both successful and flawed—that it comprises satisfaction and regret, contentment and doubt. It’s an idea that feels all the more troubling because we’re seeing it play out within a relationship in which we as audiences have become deeply invested. Like that relationship, Before Midnight is imperfect, but valuable, and ultimately rewarding. In order to love it we must undergo the traumatic process of letting go of what we want to see and learning to find the value in what’s there.