Linklater's Before Midnight Completes Two Decades of Hawke-Delpyism and the S.F. International Film Festival
Happily ever after, as most of us over the age of 20 well know, doesn't exist. Despite this truth or perhaps because of it, most films dearly love that heady pursuit of romantic bliss -- the beginning. Mostly this is fine, as film is a perfect tool for the catharsis of fantasy. But for many a person like myself, we children of messy and neglectful parents, films have also been our teachers. Through their influence and engagement, I have grown up. Which is why the film Before Midnight, the latest of the Before trilogy by Richard Linklater, is such a gift. Delving deep into the story of a middle-aged couple in the midst of marriage, parenthood, and a certain poignant bitterness, It is a much-needed telling of what happens after the shoe is found to fit.
Time, the art and the ache of it, is the central theme in this film -- as it has been in the first two. As we follow Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) step by step through the hours of an evening with only minimal edits, what is created is a sense of being in the film with the characters, a figure involved but just slightly out of frame. Of course, most films employ the fly-on-the-wall effect, but the peculiar pacing of this film and the fact that conversation, and conversation alone, is used as the vehicle for dramatic tension, makes this experience of voyeurism far more intimate.
That is the artfulness of the narrative style, and though used gracefully by Linklater, it is not new. Louis Malle's 1981 My Dinner with Andre also employed conversation as the central dramatic device and ended with no clear resolution.
But that is one film. Linklater has done something far more innovative by creating three films that exist in real time. As the characters have aged, changed, and challenged, so have we. Or at least, those of us who happen to be born around 1970 and have seen the films when they were released.
In 1995, when Before Sunrise arrived in theaters, I was a 20-something, overly earnest would-be artist exploring the great "why" and believing in the miraculous accidents of love. Jesse and Celine then, two strangers on a train who end up spending a long night in Vienna, asked the questions I was asking of myself and the world. But it was a beginning with no grand denouement. They did not have sex. They did not declare undying love. They, in fact, parted with no promise of another meeting. Fini.
Or so we thought. But nine years later there they were again in Before Sunset. Older, perhaps wiser, but definitely knowing the emergence of regret, Jesse and Celine meet again, proving that life is not a series of endless possibilities, not at all an ocean full of fish. Sometimes, those connections we had way back when were definitive. Or maybe we were just in the throes of that early-30s fear, now that we had walked enough on this earth, that we had missed our chance at happiness. The film ends with just a nod towards a possible future. Jesse chooses to miss his plane. But the question remains as the credits roll: Will they or won't they?
Before Midnight, released another nine years later and screened as part of the 2013 SF International Film Festival, dispenses with exploring potential romance and instead tells the story of what has happened to them since that fateful night all those years ago: marriage, children, exaltations, betrayals, the peculiar agony of love that can only exist when you know far too well the skin and bones and face of a person.
Had their journey been told in a single film it would have been an entirely different animal. For the films are not just the auteur expression of a director but, instead, a collaboration with Hawke and Delpy who as actors and writers have added their own experience of aging, revelation, and time to the telling of this story. Celine is 41, as is Delpy. Me: close enough to it to see its face and raise my eyebrow. So quite perfect then that this film comes out at a time when I have grown weary of the story of finding love.
Rom-coms, once so compelling, now bore me. I have become far more intrigued by how one loves when the mystery dissipates and the drama of the first and second confession has passed. And, like Celine, I find myself fighting to maintain an essential individual self in the midst of a substantial commitment and yet I wonder if it actually requires a battle. "Will he love me or not love me?" is a question easily answered, but the inquiring into the real or imagined dilemma of the swallowed self (ambitions, sexiness, independence), especially as a woman, is one hell of a soul-bender. One worthy of a film and indeed, a long conversation.
Every once in awhile art IS life -- but life made more profound by the association, condensed just enough so that we can pay attention the those vital moments that can so easily become lost in the zigs and zags of existing. It is not necessary to have seen the films upon their release and to follow them over 18 years, as I have done, to be moved by them. And truthfully, one doesn't even need to see the first two films to appreciate the last. It stands on its own. A beautiful ode to the hunger for redemption and the grace of a second chance.
Before Midnight screens tonight at 7 p.m. at the Castro Theater for the last night of the San Francisco International Film Festival. For information and tickets visit festival.sffs.org/events/closing-night-before-midnight.