Richard Linklater is a rule-breaker. I knew that going into Before Midnight (2014), so I should have kept an open mind. I was expecting it to be like its predecessors, and even though it follows the same formula (wandering, dialogue-driven romance), it deviates wildly in tone. The rule of threes would dictate that Before Midnight a) keeps the main characters as strangers, b) keeps them generally isolated from other people, and c) maintains a youthful optimism about love. Linklater eschews all three of those expectations in favor of a more cynical approach.
From the very beginning, I knew something was wrong. In the first major dialogue scene, it is revealed that Céline and Jesse have been together for almost a decade, which I assumed meant they were in a happy relationship. They weren’t. About fifteen minutes into the movie, Céline openly predicts she and Jesse will break up. Jesse calms her down and they continue on their way, but the subtext is clear. There is unresolved tension between these characters, and before the movie is over we are going to see it explode.
From there it’s a short walk to tradition. The characters start wandering around the city talking and reminiscing about their lives. Their topics of conversation aren’t as interesting as they were in the first two films though. Before Midnight doesn’t have as many memorable moments. The first film had the telephone scene, the second had Céline’s breakdown in the car. Here, it feels like they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for material. The film frequently leans on sex as a prurient a point of interest. Any time the story seems to be drifting, they’ll throw in a racy aside about the characters’ sex lives. At times they draw on philosophical musings, which also seem to have lost their juice. There’s the occasional thoughtful remark, but for the most part, they’re grasping at straws.
In the final act, we go back to the hotel, and that’s where the movie hits its high point. A seemingly menial argument turns into a fight, then a breakup. It’s a long scene, about thirty minutes, where the characters hurl insults back and forth and contest nearly every aspect of their relationship. It’s the product of years of animosity, growing apart and feeling that life has passed you by. After exhausting every conceivable point of conflict, Céline finally storms out, declaring she no longer feels anything for Jesse. With ten minutes left to go in the film, a reconciliation seems imminent, but when it arrives, it feels limp. A half-hearted answer from some half-hearted people.
When Before Sunrise (1995) was made, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were in their twenties, and Richard Linklater was in his thirties. After twenty years, it’s clear they have lost some of their optimism about love. They would probably say that things don’t always work out like that in the real world. They wouldn’t have said it twenty years ago though, or even ten. Before Midnight stands on the idea that optimism is for the young. At this point in their lives, Hawke, Delpy and Linklater have probably been through more than a few failed relationships, and it shows in their content. If their aim was to make a sober counterpoint to the giddy hopefulness of the first two films, they could have at least done it with some new characters. I’ll never be able to watch the first two films the same way again. Hawke, Delpy and Linklater would have done well to leave the franchise untouched, if only in deference to their younger selves. They believed in that sentiment once and they should let others believe in it too. If they truly think we’ll all be cynical one day, we don’t need any help getting there.