For eighteen years audiences have been entranced by the love affair between Jesse and Celine. We’ve followed them from their first meeting on a train, to an evening spent wandering Vienna in Before Sunrise and watched as they met again in Paris nine years later in Before Sunset.
Now they return in Before Midnight and we get a glimpse of their lives another nine years later, as they enter middle age. Once again, we catch them at a pivotal moment whose outcome will affect their future.
Jesse and Celine’s relationship has always been fuelled by romance, but reality has intruded on their lives. Now a couple, we find them spending the summer in Greece with their twin daughters. After dropping Jesse’s teenage son at the airport, the pair fall into the familiar rhythm of discussing their lives and the future of their family over the course of the next few hours.
Although they are no longer the idealistic youths we met in Nineties Austria, at their core Jesse and Celine remain the same people, but older and worn down by the minutiae of domestic life.
On the surface, he is still a dreamer, discussing plans for his next book with a fellow academic. But he is weighed down with guilt over his choices and the effect they have had on his son, who lives in Chicago with his mother while Jesse resides in Paris with Celine and their daughters. Saying goodbye to Hank awakens a longing to spend more time with the boy, to be a more concrete figure in his life and be ‘a good father’, before he grows up.
This desire seems to trigger a hidden fear in Celine. In the previous instalments we came to recognise her angst, her existential worries and her quick temper. Years spent together raising children, working and cleaning up after her untidy partner, while dealing with her role as the catalyst in the breakdown of Jesse’s marriage and the resulting fallout, have magnified these emotions, leaving Celine at a crossroads.
Although Before Midnight is less romantic than its predecessors, it works because it’s true to life. The tone of the film has moved on, just as the characters have. If the previous films were about the fantasy of love, this is about the reality.
The audience glimpses moments of imperfection that make Jesse and Celine relatable: no longer just the dreamers, the creatives, the warriors of their youth, they have a family and living up to the mythical standards of parenthood has left its mark irrevocably on their souls. But there is humour in the story too; anyone with a family will laugh as they tell white lies to their children on a car journey and smile each time Celine storms away from an argument then quickly returns to get the last word in.
Their fighting has a familiar ring to it; anyone in a long term relationship will recognise the need to lash out at their partner on occasion, to hurt, to be deliberately argumentative and refuse to back down. But the faults in Jesse and Celine’s relationship expose the problems that we all experience and as such emphasise the need to be more understanding of our partners.
As they stroll through the quiet streets of a Greek coastal town, Jesse and Celine discuss the enduring marriage of his grandparents and this moment makes an interesting contrast with the later scenes that focus on their fight. Although they have grown up and their outlook on life has altered, they still possess that fire to achieve something more and fulfil their own desires.
As with the previous films, this is an intelligent, dialogue driven piece that zooms in on the central characters and their relationship. The tone is wearier than before, but there are flashes of passion, which reflect the nature of the couple as they grow older. More than the earlier films, Before Midnight has a message about expectation and love that will resonate with audiences.
I can’t wait to see what another nine years will bring to the story. It would be incredibly touching to see the series develop until the couple are elderly and we can actually witness the reality of the old woman looking back at her life, as Jesse described for Celine in the original film.