A threequel for a scripted independent film is an anomaly. A threequel for a movie whose original premiered 18 years before is almost unheard of.
Yet "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater’s return to the romantic and other life travails of Julie Delpy's Celine and Ethan Hawke's Jesse is exactly that. And judging by its debut screening Sunday night at the Sundance Film Festival, the franchise has only gotten better with age.
"I guess we're all 18 years older," Linklater wryly said before the premiere of the movie, which is seeking U.S. distribution at the festival and is generating heavy interest among buyers. Then he unveiled his film, which offers a resolution to the question of what happened to Jesse and Celine after the ambiguous end of 2004’s “Before Sunset” (fans will recall that Jesse changed his flight from Paris to stay with her) and then follows the chatty pair as they explore new conundrums.
[Note: This is the rare movie where the spoiler is at the beginning, which makes it a little tricky to write about. If you’d prefer not to know where the pair find themselves at the beginning of “Before Midnight” and thus, what had happened after “Sunset” ended, please skip the next three paragraphs and go straight to the one that begins “With its crackling.”]
A few minutes into “Before Midnight” we get the answer to the main mystery: Jesse and Celine are living in Paris as a couple, parents to twin girls conceived when they got together. Jesse is also struggling to maintain his relationship with his teenage son Hank, who lives in Chicago with Jesse’s (now) ex-wife and who, after spending the summer with Jesse and Celine on a Greek island, is being dropped off at the airport to fly home.
The film kicks off with a startlingly long 13-minute single-take scene as the couple drive from the airport to their Greek resort discussing their marriage and life in general. The scene sets the tone for the film that follows, in which, as with “Before Sunset,” we get not only their musings on the world but bits of information that help us decipher what’s been happening in their lives over the previous nine years. Only this time, of course, the revelations have more heft, since Jesse and Celine are discussing their shared history instead of their lives apart. (Hawke, who was not in Sundance as he readies a play in New York, sent a statement via Linklater that read: “The star of the movie is Father Time itself”).
Without spoiling too much of what we learn, suffice to say that he’s continued to find success as a novelist, while she’s at a career crossroads. Their relationship (they’ve not officially married) seems to have maintained the kind of yin-and-yang playfulness that made them such a memorable couple in the mid-1990s, but as the day wears on (as with the others, the film takes place during a day), the cracks begin to show. The fires of youth now cooled, Jesse and Celine are simply trying to sort out the messy business of being a long-term couple.
With its crackling dialogue, weighty themes and subtle power shifts between the pair, the film received a hugely warm response both in the room and online, particularly for its writing. (The script, written by Linklater and his two main actors, could be an awards contender if the film winds up with a 2013 release; "Before Sunset" was nominated for an original screenplay Oscar when it was released in 2004.)
For fans, “Before Midnight” will also evoke plenty of memories. There are not only trademark scenes—Hawke and Delpy shot from the front as they walk through a city in digressive conversation—but also specific callbacks, including a key water-side scene that recalls the Danube-adjacent conversation of the first film. And the somewhat claustrophobic car-set opening of “Midnight” contrasts with the relative open spaces of the train that kicked off “Before Sunrise.”
Financed with Greek money, "Midnight" shot under the radar in coastal Greece over just a few weeks last summer. After the screening, Linklater said he didn’t have a long-gestating plan to make a third movie, but after keeping in touch with Hawke and Delpy over the years, “somewhere along the way we realized [the characters] were still alive.”
He also acknowledged that he, Delpy and Hawke have all drawn from their own life experiences, which it should be noted included Hawke’s divorce from Uma Thurman as well as all three principals raising children of their own. (They have eight total among them.)
As with “Sunset,” the writing took on an unusual process. To give the movie its freeform feel, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy got together and holed up for weeks trying out different lines, eventually settling on a script that would work with minimal improvisation on set.
Asked at the screening what they learned from the process, Delpy quipped, “the capacity to argue.” Then, turning serious, she said, “We know each other better and get straight to the point.”