In Before Sunrise (1995), the first installment in director Richard Linklater’s Before series, we saw American goofball Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and passionate, philosophical Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy) embark on the first leg of their romantic voyage, a happenstance, flirtatious meeting on a train leading the 23-year-olds to spend one impulsive night together exploring Vienna’s environs. By sun-up (after much mileage, a lot of talking — and I do mean A LOT — and a little pinball-playing thrown in), the one-night stand had blossomed into full-flung love. Come time to go their separate ways (he to the U.S. and she to Paris), the conscious choice not to exchange contact information made, they reluctantly bid each other adieu, promising to meet again in Vienna six months to the day.

If their plan seemed a little half-baked, Before Sunset (2004) confirms the suspicion nine years later, as Jesse and Celine reconnect in Paris, having not reunited in Vienna due to the death of Celine’s grandmother. (We learn that Jesse, not knowing what became of his française, went so far as to put up flyers in the Austrian capital in a frenzied attempt to find her.) Although life’s responsibilities appear destined to keep the star-crossed duo apart in this second episode — he’s now a writer with a wife and young son, she’s an activist in a “good relationship,” as she describes — an afternoon of playful banter, profound ponderings of amour and the human existence, and admissions of inextinguishable desire for each other stoke love’s red-hot embers, the spark as immediate and bright as it was that fateful evening in Austria.

This brings us to Before Midnight, the most recent, 108-minute-long chapter in the winding romantic saga. Premiering this week at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, the movie — the last in the trilogy — uses Greece as the backdrop to delve into the lives of Jesse and Celine yet again, after nine years and the birth of twin, blonde-haired daughters (though conspicuously still minus wedding vows). With the excitement of newfound love stripped away, but very much the same enthusiastic, affectionate ensemble they were two decades earlier, the newest stage in the sweethearts’ lives — that of parenthood — stirs up tensions one summer day in the Peloponnese, and, before the clock strikes midnight, tests their bond in a manner such as we haven’t yet witnessed.

Hawke and Delpy are better than ever this go-round, their acting having matured as considerably as their outward appearances over the past 20-odd years. The polished performers have obvious on-screen chemistry, and demonstrate a comfort and relaxation around one another that naturally translates into marital (or, in this case, quasi-marital) familiarity. They navigate issues both large and miniscule with dexterity and control, taking on the greater physicality and emotional outpouring required by the script with refinement, intimacy and — most importantly — believability. Which is all to say that their mastery of the very-much-in-love, at-times-frustrated lovers is a pleasure to watch.

Heartfelt, witty dialogue is where the Before threesome of films excels (long, flowing conversation is their undeniable focal point), and Linklater — along with Hawke and Delpy, who also co-wrote Before Sunset with the director — serve up their smartest, most delicious screenplay yet. Though the Sunrise script felt like a bit of a stretch at times, arbitrary and disjointed even, the three writers are perfectly in tune with the psyches of their lead characters in Midnight, and as a result have put together something that’s laugh-out-loud funny, dramatic and clever in its brutally honest depiction of adulthood and love. As Jesse says to Celine, “This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.” Reality (hold the sugarcoating, please) is just what we get: Discussions about the complexities of divorce, failings as a parent (Jesse continuously laments not “being there” for his son Henry, who lives with his mother, Jesse’s ex-wife, in Chicago) and the shortcomings of one’s partner pepper the production like a highly spiced dish. Fortunately, hilarious lines like “The only upside to being over 35 is you don’t get raped as much” intermingle with the moroseness to soften the blow.

Interestingly, the narrative makes greater use of third parties to enhance the storytelling than in its prequels, both of which overwhelmingly focused on the Hawke-Delpy twosome’s verbal jousting and amatory escapades. One pivotal scene, specifically, situates our protagonists among several couples at the dinner table of a prominent writer, an admirer of Jesse’s novels. The conversation begins innocently enough; each wife-husband or girlfriend-boyfriend pair doling out opinions of — you guessed it — love, narrating the heart-melting circumstances that brought them together — of course, a pessimistic shift toward marriage’s inherent difficulties ruins the fun. It’s a nice change to the formula of the previous two movies (albeit a slightly preachy, transparent foreshadowing of the turbulence we will observe later) that spreads the verbal wealth.

As in its predecessors, Before Midnight sees Linklater — who’s also directed such films as Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life and School of Rock — utilize his characteristic, beautifully executed long takes. Whether Jesse and Celine are driving through the streets of Greece, traversing the Peloponnesian countryside by foot or lounging in a hotel room, the audience gets an intimate close-up of the American’s boyish charm and the strong-willed feminist through extended camera segments. This directorial style colors the flick with an acute rawness and realism, the absence of cuts giving the illusion of natural interaction and serving to pull the viewer even deeper down the romantic rabbit hole.

Overall, Linklater brings the trilogy to a close in finely crafted fashion. If nothing else, the Before series has taught us that “love is a complex issue,” as Jesse plainly declares in Sunrise. Ambiguity continually shrouds the destiny of Jesse and Celine, but love for these two dynamos is not all that complex — it may rise and set, but, for this irrevocably head-over-heels combo, it’s guaranteed to never fade away completely.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

“Before Midnight” opens to the public on Monday, April 22 at the BMCC Tribeca Pac Theater (located at 199 Chambers Street, between Greenwich & West Streets) in NYC, with a second screening taking place on Wednesday, April 24 at the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea Theater (located at 260 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues). For time and ticket information, please visit

Featured image: Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in “Before Midnight,” directed by Richard Linklater. Photo Credit: Despina Spyrou.

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