"Before Midnight" may be the last entry in Richard Linklater's Celine and Jesse trilogy — if it's not, then the word "trilogy" seems terribly inapt — which started in 1995 with "Before Sunrise" and continued with "Before Sunset" in 2004. The first film was intended as a one-shot (despite a very sequel-friendly ending); and the ending of the second film brought things full-circle in a satisfyingly final way. But the characters keep calling back their creators.
Perhaps there will be more episodes: So far the films have been separated by nine years each time; another four films would bring the list to seven (almost as nice a number as three); the stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, each probably have another 36 years in them, though Linklater would be pushing 90. And the movies are so inexpensive to make that it would only require a devoted, cult-size following to keep them afloat financially.
The script for "Before Sunrise" was written by Linklater and Kim Krizan, but according to Delpy, she and Hawke rewrote more than half of it as they settled into their characters. For the middle film (and the new one), Linklater, Hawke and Delpy wrote and rewrote each other in an ongoing process over a few years.
In 1995, Jesse (Hawke) was an American who meets Julie (Delpy) on his last night in Paris. They walk and they talk and, in the most purely romantic way, fall in love. They arrange to meet again, and we are left wondering if one or both will chicken out. It's a wonderfully open ending.
In the 2004 entry, we find that there was a screwup. Jesse, who by now has a wife and a kid, shows up in Paris to promote his first novel, which is, naturally, based on his one-night encounter with Celine. Celine shows up at a signing. They figure out why their scheduled reunion went awry; they walk and talk again; they realize that their romance is battered but unfaded.
In "Before Midnight," we join them on the last day of a Greek holiday with their seraphic-looking twins; Jesse is still fighting battles with his ex-wife and feeling guilty over his abandonment of his son. For much of the first third, they drive and talk this third includes a nearly continuous 14-minute take that is broken up just once, by a cutaway.
The first two movies are pretty much all Celine and Jesse all the time. "Before Midnight" breaks out of this restriction. The long middle section is a jolly meal with some of the locals and an elderly writer. In the final third, the two check into a hotel for some romantic "us" time. In isolation, tensions that have been touched upon earlier blossom into a fight so disturbing that we can believe it might destroy their relationship.
As surely as the first film captured a familiar kind of youthful romance and the second installment conveyed the nostalgia, regret and hope that attend encounters with former loves, the new film looks at the quotidian, anti-romantic details that inevitably follow the indulgence of crazy love. The initial surge of feeling can't be sustained forever in the same form: It has to mutate and adapt to time and reality. "Before Midnight" pokes at these problems, then confronts them head-on in the emotional explosion of the final scenes.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).