As a rule, we like our love stories to end with a big kiss between the boy and the girl (or other combinations thereof) who have overcome obstacles and issues before setting off together on a life of perfect, eternal romance, unsullied by imperfection or boredom or change or unhappiness.
But what really happens after Happily Ever After? It's a conundrum that faced Stephen Sondheim in the second half of "Into the Woods," and it's one tackled by director Richard Linklater and his co-writers and co-stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Midnight," a follow-up to 1995's "Before Sunrise" and 2004"s "Before Sunset."
Not that seeing the previous two chapters is a requirement, but here's a précis: In "Sunrise," American tourist Jesse (Hawke) meets Frenchwoman Céline (Delpy) on a train; the two of them disembark in Vienna and spend the night walking around the city and talking, feeling an instant bond but unsure if they'll ever see each other again. "Sunset" sees Jesse, now a successful author, visiting Paris to promote his new book, a novel based on his night with Céline; she shows up for the reading, and the two of them walk and talk in the City of Lights, with Jesse eventually deciding not to catch his flight back to the U.S., despite the fact that he's married and has a child.
"Midnight" begins at the end of a vacation in Greece, where Jesse and Céline have spent the summer. Jesse puts his now 11-year-old son on a plane home and frets that he is missing his chance to be present at a key period in his kid’s life, since the boy lives in Chicago with Jesse’s embittered ex-wife. Céline worries that she will be expected to leave her work as an environmental activist and follow Jesse back to the States (along with their young twin daughters).
Early on, we see Céline and Jesse talk to each other, and to their hosts at a seaside villa, about a variety of subjects, and apart from a few little digs, they seem to be getting along perfectly well. It’s at night, when they’ve checked into a hotel for a night away from the kids, where what begins as an exciting opportunity have sex without children in the next room turns into a full-bore marital argument about giving and taking and cheating and staying – and possibly leaving.
While the ticking-clock element isn’t as pronounced as in the previous two films, we begin to wonder whether this couple can mend their fences by the time the clock strikes 12.
What's so extraordinary about this trilogy is the way in which the conversations feel so spontaneous and natural yet reveal so very much about the characters’ histories and desires. There are a handful of scenes involving other people, but most of the movie is Delpy and Hawke talking to each other, and their volleying skills are second to none. Whether they’re taking a lengthy car trip or strolling through a Greek village, their badinage is so organic that you’d never guess the two had written, much less rehearsed, all this dialogue.
Wall-to-wall talk is as appealing to some viewers as wall-to-wall action is to others, but in both cases, it’s a tricky balance to maintain. And in the same way that "Fast & Furious 6" can keep surging the adrenaline without wearing us out, Linklater and his cast deftly keep the chat flowing consistently while maintaining our interest. Céline and Jesse may not be perfect for each other – is anyone? – but they’re appealing, funny people. We’ve seen how their initial attraction made total sense and how they managed to maintain a longing for each other over time and distance, and now we get to see them discover the resources that will, with any luck, keep their relationship alive.
Linklater's "Before" trilogy, particularly the second and third entries, can sit proudly alongside Eric Rohmer’s classic tales of lovestruck adults trying to philosophize their way into each other’s hearts. "Before Midnight" is a masterwork of insight into the human condition and a celebration of what two actors in front of a camera can accomplish.