Warning: Readers who haven't seen Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, or Before Midnight will encounter plot spoilers below.
"We know that we are going to break up eventually."
So says a young woman in the middle of her first great romantic attachment. The context is a dinner with cross-generational acquaintances at a villa in Greece. Three couples of varying ages are discussing friendship, companionship, commitment, sex—all the things that pass for or indicate love in the modern world—and they all seemingly agree on one thing: nothing relational in this world is permanent. Or if they don't agree, nobody is willing to fly publicly in the face of what has graduated from conventional wisdom to accepted fact.
Men and women want to love and be loved. They want it desperately enough that they must and will keep pairing off, even as they loudly and persistently declare that love's attainment is at best a random, lucky draw, and at worst—and most probably—a fairy tale.
I have always thought it significant that when Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) met as strangers on a train eighteen years ago (in Before Sunrise), the reason they first spoke with one another was in shared disgust at a publicly bickering (apparently) married couple. There follows an awkward, recycled joke about how married couples lose the ability to hear the pitch in which the opposite gendered partner speaks ("nature's way of allowing couples to grow old without killing each other"). Jesse later shares that his parents once said they stayed together only for the sake of the kids.
Message to Boomers, Gen-X-ers, Gen-Y-ers, and Milennials received: there's marriage and then there's love, and never the twain shall meet.
Dismissing marriage and searching for what could possibly replace it to signal that a relationship is special—nay, unique—ties the three very different Celine and Jesse movies together. In Before Sunrise, the characters speak in emotive, modern spiritual language (they have a "connection") to persuade themselves and others that they're being driven toward intimacy by something other than emotional infatuation or physical desire.
But they can't solve the big problem: how to demonstrate that claim in action, how to differentiate this relationship from a hook up. Celine's one idea is to refrain from having sex, since that will at least make their relationship different, even if she assumes it will still only be a one-night affair. They don't follow through (though this isn't confirmed until Before Sunset), but they do manage to not exchange addresses or contact information so that the planned meeting in six months can be entirely voluntary. Even this seems more like they're rejecting any external, concrete obligation than attempting to forge their own kind of covenant. They see commitment—even just a commitment to call, write, or see each other again—as a form of bondage, a poison to a love relationship, despite the mutual assurances that continuing the relationship is what they both want.
In Before Sunset, the second film in the trilogy, we learned that Celine never made that follow up meeting (her grandmother died and she was attending the funeral). Jesse wrote an autobiographical novel about their first encounter and eventually moved on to marry someone else and father a son. Celine appears while Jesse is on a book tour and they engage in an afternoon of conversation, ostensibly to catch up but really to test the emotional waters and see if that perfect spark can be rekindled.
Jesse's marriage morally complicates their flirtation, but not as much as one might think (or hope). Love, connections, romance, fantasy—they all trump ceremony and sacrament, because the characters, representative of their world, believe the emotional bonds created the former are more important than the societal or moral bonds created by the latter.
So when Before Midnight begins—and again, beyond this point are unavoidable plot spoilers—Jesse is putting his son on a plane back to his mother in the United States. He and Celine are together. They have conceived, birthed, and raised twin girls. It is strongly implied that they are not married, although they have told their daughters that they are. Jesse wants to be more of a presence in his son's life, which the couple senses would mean moving back to the United States. Celine does not want to give up a recently offered "dream job" just to have child custody every other weekend. They discuss their relationship in the car driving back from the airport, at the villa in Greece where they are vacationing, and at a hotel they have booked for a romantic evening that descends into a fight. Conflicts, both recent and simmering, come to a boil all at once.
Bertolt Brecht once famously said that "art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." The separate ends to which art is used, the diversity of things that the audience wants to get from watching a film, means that viewers (perhaps especially Christian viewers) will inevitably sometimes have love-hate relationships with certain films.
And as a mirror to reality, Before Midnight is top notch. The patterns of speech, the subjects of argument, the worries the couple face, and the imperfect ways they deal with those worries should be familiar to most viewers. It is a testament to how rounded and real Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have made these characters that when one of them says "this is how it ends," I felt grief similar to what I've felt when actual couples I knew were breaking up. (The film ends, like each in the series, ambiguously, with choices facing the characters but no absolute indication of whether they are, in fact, breaking up or deciding to stay together.)
Before Midnight accurately shows the seemingly inescapable frailties of a relationship that is built on modern notions of romanticized love. Those are myriad. Celine resents Jesse's family. Their mutual insecurity manifests as a constant, endless need to talk about the specialness of their relationship. They experience the fear that comes from the fact that to destroy a relationship, obstacles need not be insurmountable, just stronger than the partner's feelings at the current moment. Sex has become less of a joyous celebration of union and more a desperate attempt to re-"connect."
But for all they ways the film captures these real problems, it's maddening to watch the conflicts never lead the characters to question their assumptions. They never wonder if they might be happier and more fulfilled not with a different lover, but with a different understanding of what love is.
Perhaps they do but sense that down that road lies madness. Celine scoffs at Jesse in one scene, derisively calling him "a closet Christian." Jesse evades a question about fidelity by reconstructing it into one he can answer affirmatively (he is completely committed to the relationship, accepts her flaws, and loves her unconditionally). Celine insists that Jesse's marriage would have ended eventually anyway, even if she had not reentered his life and participated in his adultery. The couple say how bewildered they are that it is important to their daughters that they be married. Each of these scenes hints that the characters have a moral consciousness which, however much they repress it, is not totally placated by their definition of love, nor by how they use of that definition to justify their choices.
If I were convinced the movie was self-aware about Jesse's and Celine's cultivated moral evasiveness, persuaded that the way they raise moral questions and then skirt them was some kind of critique of the worldview (or at least love view) that the first two films seemed to champion, then I would probably consider Before Midnight a masterpiece.
What I think we actually get in the film is a worldview that is brilliantly mirrored, but never really analyzed.
Marriage, to parrot G. K. Chesterton's famous saying about Christianity, has not been tried and found wanting so much as found hard and left untried. This film shows how relationships, bound in marriage or not, are hard. People certainly do have loving relationships outside of marriage and unloving ones within marriage, but the possibility that the institution—the sacrament—might actually provide tangible benefits that don't ensure the conditions of a happy, permanent relationship, but can support and promote them is never openly or seriously considered in the film.
Jesse and Celine may have gone too far to seriously consider whether other (kinds of) choices are possible, but is that true for everyone at the same stage in their relationship? Certainly, many middle-aged couples feel the sort of fatalism these characters do. It's a period in life in which there are as many or more choices in the past as in the future—where a relationship's quality is influenced as much by the fruit of past decisions as by the pleasurable contemplation of future ones. But does the fact that these feelings are so ubiquitous mean they are universally true? The film makes little to no serious attempt to compare or contrast the relationship with any others. It's an exquisitely detailed warts-and-all portrait.
But for all that, I haven't seen a film in a long time (if ever) that has led to more substantive, productive conversations about what goes into a good relationship. The characters don't model good choices, nor does the film appear to value their choices wisely (or even coherently). But great art ought to challenge and provoke, not assure and placate. Before Midnight is in no way a "Christian" film—but in it, serious artists try to represent faithfully the world we live in. And in this way, the film reveals truths about that world and the people that inhabit it.
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.
Summer is littered with plenty of mindless entertainment. In that landscape, we are not likely to get a more thoughtful or thought-provoking film than Before Midnight.
The Family Corner
Before Midnight is rated R for sexual content, nudity, and language. The dialogue contains pervasive crude talk. Celine calls Jesse's ex-wife "fat-assed" and labels her using a crude euphemism for the female genitalia. The male sexual organ is referred to using a common vulgarity, and the slang obscenity denoting copulation is used both to describe the act itself and as an all-purpose generic curse word. (Examples: during an argument one character calls another the "f---ing mayor of crazy town"; Jesse insists he will "write about whatever the f--- I want.") The most common euphemism for excrement is used several times, usually in adjective form (i.e. "we are s----y parents"), and at least once in the presence of children who appear to be sleeping. Jesse and Celine engage in foreplay onscreen, including shots of him kissing her bare breast, and Celine is topless for one extended scene. Several adults drink alcohol. A couple fights while the woman is brandishing a knife. A younger (but adult) female guest at the villa is ogled by the men while in a bikini; a younger male joins one discussion while in swim trunks but shirtless.