Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)

There is a moment in Richard Linklater's pensive, dreamscape laden Waking Life (2001) where two strangers talk about the blind autonomy of human nature. Their conversation leads to DH Lawrence and his ideology of "two people who meet on a road and instead of passing and glancing away they decide to accept what he calls the confrontation of their souls, freeing the brave reckless Gods within us all". This describes quite wonderfully the meeting of Jesse and Celine, the two twenty-somethings who instead of glancing away on a train, chose to spend the day with each other in Before Sunrise (1995); a romantic encounter that changed the course of both their lives forever.

After the sublime reunion of Before Sunset (2005) we're back for a third instalment into the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy); Another 10 years have passed, they now have twin girls,  and are vacationing with friends in Greece. Their vitality seems intact but for the first time we see the couple being burdened by regrets, regrets that begin to drown out the sophomoric musings we've come to know them for.

While at dinner surrounded by friends of all ages the group discuss (abstractly) the nature of 'successful' relationships. The conversation heeds many points of view from around the table and arrives at the inevitable conclusion that each relationship is a separate beast that must be understood and trained. What works for one may not for another - it's about balance. A young couple dining even state how they coped with long distance through new social/technological advancements such as Skype. An unseen romance blossoming between Jesse's now teenage son and a Greek girl is also questioned with Facebook being uttered as a possibility for preservation. These new tools at young lovers' disposal make us question what would have happened to Jesse and Celine's meeting had they existed circa 1994. Would their initial romance have been made easier, taken an alternative path, or killed the mystery?

Now in their forties, Jesse and Celine must also analyse their own relationship once again and assess where they stand to one another; the dreams that were realised, dreams that were lost, the sacrifices along the way. In a prolonged drunken showdown in a hotel room the couple fight over their longings and dispute claims of resentment among other dormant negativity festering over the years. Personal traits that perhaps helped draw the two together have worn over time and now provide conflict. The drama in both content and execution reminds of Linklater and Hawke's excellent, heavier work in Tape (2001).

It's not pleasant seeing these two characters we've invested so much of ourselves in battling and at times being malicious. Yet for this very reason it makes for enthralling drama, because we care so deeply for them. Hawke and Delpy have carried Jesse and Celine with them for so long, the chemistry is effortless and breathes with such life you can feel the years and experience in their voices. During their fighting you find yourself in both corners at all times yet leaning towards one or the other at varying junctures. 

Before Midnight certainly is the least 'enjoyable' of the three films but is by no means lacking in any way for it's also the richest and most resonant so far. It simply witnesses these characters in a naturally different place, with the people they've become and the people they used to be in conflict. And yet despite the central couple being at odds with each other it never falls short of enlightenment, there is still a breezy quality to the proceedings and by now just being in the presence of Jesse and Celine has become a cinematic nirvana. Sunset ended with the beautiful scene of Celine serenading Jesse through song and dance. With Midnight an equally powerful result stems from a role reversal as Jesse strives to recapture Celine's heart through an elaborate fantasy, one echoing a conversation from the couple's cameo in Waking Life.

Some films only exist within the frame, the characters live from their introduction and cease with a cut. Rarely do we feel a film's life live on without us and that it existed before us, it can certainly be felt in the best films of Robert Altman. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have created exactly this; characters whose lives exist beyond the time we're given with them.

When the screen fades to black our hearts go with them and we can only imagine what they're doing right now. Of course this is a false notion, but these films have delivered quite possibly the greatest (and certainly the most authentic) on-screen romance cinema has ever conjured. When seen as a whole the trilogy thus far adds up to a similar product as Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Which asks the question - will the next instalment be this team's equivalent to Saraband (2003)?

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