Culture Film

‘Before Midnight:’ a squirm-inducing love story

Before Midnight is one of the most uncomfortable movies I’ve ever sat through. It’s like going out for dinner with your married friends, and you can sense the tension going. You know they’re fighting, and it’s awkward for everyone else at the table. But it’s something real.

Like the first two movies in the series, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), Beautiful Midnight is written and directed by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Before Sunrise introduces Ethan Hawke as Jesse, a young man travelling through Europe, who meets Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train. The two spend a romantic evening in Vienna walking and talking, knowing they’re never going to see each other again.

In Before Sunset they meet nine years later, after Jesse became a successful author writing a novel about their time in Vienna. They realize that they are still in love with each other, even though Jesse is a married man with a son. Before Midnight takes us another nine years in the future, to catch one more glimpse of their story.

It seems like everyone is talking about how false our lives are right now. We Facebook and Instragram our best possible selves; in turn, those who look at our profile pages are dissatisfied with their own complicated, messy lives in comparison with our picture-perfect ones.

But Before Midnight peels back the mask, allowing a glimpse into the sometimes sordid nature of relationships. It’s not a movie I particularly enjoyed. In fact, I flat out disliked most of it, because I wanted to see the fairytale ending to the love story of Jesse and Celine that began with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I wanted another simple conversation movie about these two characters who are married and still in love. But it’s not.

Jesse and Celine, who were previously so young and naive and bursting with thoughts and ideas, who waxed poetic about life, are embittered and jaded. They fight and bicker about small things, large things, and it’s just as squirm inducing as when you hear people you love fight with each other.

Jesse calls her “the mayor of crazy town,” and Celine retorts back with “I’ve fallen out of love with you.” Those are words that cut through flesh and bone, words that are hard to take back.

I find it telling that they’re not married, even though they’ve been together for almost a decade. They’ve even told their twin girls that they’re married, but they aren’t, and will never be. Jesse spitefully attacks marriage, saying “I don’t want to live a boring life, where two people own each other, where two people are institutionalized in a box that others created because that is a bunch of stifling bullshit.”

But whether they’re married or not, they’re going to have the same problem regardless; their love was based on an idyllic vision of romantic love that could never live up to reality. I wonder whether anything would have changed in the film if their relationship had been framed by the commitment of marriage.

Jesse manages to spit out a line after a long and very serious fight which questions whether their relationship can go on: “If you want love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect but it’s real.”

That’s this movie in a nutshell. Jesse and Celine’s relationship is not what I wanted it to be, but it’s real. Christianity Today’s Kenneth Morefield sums up my sentiments about the film nicely in his review:

“That some of the people in Before Midnight (and in the audience) may not be able to grasp all those truths or act upon them means the viewing experience is often more painful than it is pleasurable. Still, I would rather be invited to wrestle with some difficult and potentially painful truths than be anesthetized by more vacuous violence, crude comedy, or pseudo-philosophy.”

This is a movie of, about, and for conversation. It’s the best provocateur about relationships since Certified Copy.

Still, it ends on a precarious note. Even though Jesse makes his declaration of love — love that transcends and sacrifices everything for someone else, it’s ultimately a fantasy. It’s a story like one of his novels, and one which contradicts everything the characters have spent the entire movie talking about.

Celine softly whispers while they’re watching the sun disappear below the mountains; “Still there. Still there. Still there. Gone.”

And that’s exactly what I thought as I watched the last few seconds of Jesse and Celine’s relationship on screen.