From ‘Sunset’ to ‘Midnight’

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Two years ago, my friend spoke about his comprehension of love as a multi-stage progression — from attraction to romance, to commitment and marriage, and finally toleration. Whether this holds considerable weight is up for debate, but one thing is certain: love evolves over time. And no film saga captures this evolution well more than the trilogy of “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004) and finally, “Before Midnight” (2013). The latter, just recently released, is the most resonant and richest of the three, confidently establishing the series as not only some of the best romantic dramas around, but also the most honest, intelligent and real.

Literally set and filmed nine years after “Sunset,” “Midnight” finds Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) finally living together in Paris, France as a couple with twin daughters, 18 years after they first met in Vienna, Austria. While vacationing in Greece, Jesse sees off his teenage son, who flies back to the U.S. to Jesse’s now ex-wife. He thinks of moving to America to maintain a consistent presence in his son’s life, putting him at odds with Celine, who is considering a job in government.

Fair warning: watching “Midnight” won’t have as compelling of an effect on you if you haven’t seen “Sunrise” and “Sunset” beforehand. For one, the films don’t have a plot at all, and are instead being driven forward by its two lead characters and their interactions. And that’s the fundamental key to enjoying these three films, to watch Jesse and Celine open themselves up to one another, mature and also how their love for each other develops over the course of the 18 years being portrayed.

The fact that Jesse and Celine are finally together sets “Midnight” apart from its predecessors, and the film boldly dives headfirst into a relationship in which the honeymoon phase is long over. Though there are certainly echoes of the chemistry that hearkens back to their days of “Sunrise” and “Sunset,” they have since become a long-term committed couple, and the magic that was there has mostly faded away. They now have to deal with the difficulty of maintaining a relationship, which is made slightly more difficult by not only issues like family and careers, but also how well they know each other, prompting their disputes to become quite heated.

Like the two that came before it, what makes “Midnight” so special is just how real it feels, and this time around, it engages its audience with its honesty and intelligence. The film’s intention is to explore the nature of love and relationships, and does so by not only highlighting the interactions between Jesse and Celine, but also those that they share with other characters, who have their own meaningful opinions and stories to share. It is, without a doubt, meant to be a self-reflecting experience for the viewer.

Hawke and Delpy share such an irresistible, natural chemistry that is magnified by the film’s extensive use of long takes and tracking shots. During these times, it seems as though they are simply improvising their conversations and reacting accordingly for minutes on end, and whether they are subsequently deviating from the screenplay, written by the two of them and “Before” saga director Richard Linklater, would be rather fascinating to find out. Whatever the answer to that may be, their performances are incredible testaments to their acting skills.

Just as Jesse and Celine have matured over the years, so have the films that featured them. Of these, “Before Midnight” is the most evocative and powerful, and Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have created a timeless masterpiece. Will this memorable couple return? It may take another nine years for another entry in this saga to arrive, but their story is most definitely worth continuing, and one worth any wait.

Recommended. It’s honest, intelligent and intense.