I TURNED 40 on Wednesday. To celebrate, my wife and I went to see a movie in which a couple roughly the same age as us – and with spookily similar personalities, emotional baggage and childcare arrangements – have a gradually escalating argument, the climax of which is the woman telling the man she doesn’t think she loves him anymore.
Before Midnight was a surprisingly lovely way to finish my birthday, and it renewed my faith in long-term relationships, my own included. Still, for some people who found kindred spirits in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, it may have come as a shock.
The first two films in this series are among the most romantic movies ever made, the story of two passionate, idealistic young people, Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who fall in love over one long night in Vienna, think they’ve lost each other forever, then get a chance to begin again in Paris years later.
The third is rather different, dropping in on their lives many years into a real relationship. Most of the dreamy “what if?” questions that peppered the first two are gone. Instead there are complications, frustrations and resentment.
And yet, in many ways, Jesse and Celine are just the same. What was great about the first two films was the way they seemed to offer up romantic fantasy but simultaneously picked it apart. Even in Before Sunrise, Celine was teasing Jesse that he just wanted a good story about “f***ing a French girl”. The question Before Sunset poses is: are Jesse and Celine really the soulmates they seemed to be in the first film, or are they just idealising a brief encounter from years earlier to feel better about the subsequent decade of disappointment?
Before Midnight answers that question, and doesn’t. In some ways it looks like the story of a relationship in meltdown, a couple’s youthful idealism pushed to the limit by the mundanity of middle-aged working lives and the complications of parenting three children, one of whom spends much of his time on the other side of the world. The sequence in which Jesse and Celine lay into each other in a hotel room, and Celine storms out three times, is painful to watch.
But is this what we’re looking at? This is a couple who still make each other laugh, who still have a healthy sexual relationship, who still talk for hours about everything under the sun, who understand each other better than anyone. If they are brutally frank with each other, they are never cruel, and even the worst insults are essentially attempts to reach out to each other. Even in the midst of that hotel room showdown there are quiet moments of tenderness and affection. I found myself suspecting that, far from being an endgame, such high drama was business as usual in this relationship, a way of provoking each other to solve problems rather then letting them fester. The film’s conclusion is as open-ended as the one in Before Sunset, but for me the answer to the film’s central question – can romantic love, even the strongest, deepest kind, endure? – is a resounding yes.
As with Before Sunset, though, much depends on what happens after the final scene. Do they stay together or not? Whatever the answer, the ending – with its extended joke about time travel – hints at the possibility of Hawke, Delpy and director Richard Linklater still making these films when they are pensioners.
I’ll be disappointed if they don’t. For me these films are becoming life companions, the age of the characters always mirroring my own. For future generations they will be something else – a life lesson in how your ideas about love change as you get older. Young people enraptured by Before Sunrise will have Before Midnight, or a yet-to-be-made sequel, to help them figure out what sort of future they might have with that boy or girl they just fell for, on a train or elsewhere.