A shot from the trailer for Before Midnight. (Credit: Sony Classics)
What makes Before Midnight a “small film,” as a “commercial prospect” in the Hollywood sense, is that it is utterly unconcerned with that question. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) don’t act like the typical characters in a Hollywood romance. They do not have winking mannerisms. The only classical tropes of romance in the movies (this is the third in a trilogy) are the beauty of the actors, which as Michelle Orange observed is, er, inflected by the passage of time, and of the European landscapes they walk through in each film: Vienna, Paris and now the island of Messenia in Greece. For the rest, the style is rather talkier than studios like, and no one shows up for the finale in a tuxedo or a princess gown. In the minds of studio heads these are the kinds of things the (female) American audience demands in a real romance.
It’s important to distinguish what studio heads think from what real people think, of course. These movies are romantic classics to a lot of us. Even if they are, as A.O. Scott puts it, “Aristotelian bulletins from the field of Gen-X solipsism,” we are prepared to own it. And yet, I notice people complaining a lot more about this one. Not the critics so much, but friends who wanted something with less bickering. More genuine connection. In a brief sense, more hope, though not necessarily in the treacly, Hollywood sense.
The issue, from what I can tell, is that while the others were deeply romantic in that non-Hollywood way of theirs, in this one the belief in the redemptive powers of romance is at a low ebb. The premise of the first two films was that Jesse and Céline were meant to be together, but were separated by geography and certain accidents of chance. This one has a question mark hanging over the whole affair. Jesse announced, at the end of the prior film, that he was going to miss his flight, chucking his marriage and even his child in favor of Céline. This was about as romantic—and perhaps some curmudgeons might say, unrealistic—a gesture as you can get. But the new film opens with the fallout—Jesse reluctantly putting that child, alone, on a transatlantic flight back to America and Jesse’s bitter ex-wife, then turning his frustration into an “idea” about moving to America. The discussions more or less descend from there. Even in its most beautiful, relaxed moment, a seaside dinner party in a sort of cave, most of the discussants admit they don’t believe in people who are “meant for each other.” At which point Jesse and Céline look down as awkwardly as possible.
Personally, I liked the film’s refusal to accept that even the grandest romantic gestures turn out as well as we hope. It’s like that in real life, where often enough, we don’t get the chance to make the gesture in the first place. In recent days, Linklater has admitted to the press that actually, long ago, he had the kind of magical one-night encounter that forms the basis of Jesse and Céline’s romance. The woman Linklater met never saw the films, because she died in a car accident before the first one was ever released. He didn’t know that until recently, he says. He’d been hoping one day she’d see the films, and come out of the woodwork.
That unhappy ending in real life seems to be coloring this latest film, I admit. There are times when Jesse and Céline’s fighting feels trumped up. Not that couples don’t have arguments they don’t need to have. But occasionally you can feel the actors gritting their teeth, willing the toxic dynamic to draw out a little further. The primary aggressor is Céline, and the lack of explanation for her issue with Jesse until quite late in the film makes her easier to stereotype as “difficult,” though she isn’t, particularly. There are moments, when she’s just resorting to the rote feminist lines, where you worry that these are just Band-Aids over plot holes, a problem with trying to stuff the feelings of nine years together into an hour and a half. Your worries are later alleviated, but they still leave the audience suspecting trumped-up charges, not by Céline so much as by the filmmakers—I include Delpy and Hawke in this—who need a conflict to keep the audience interested.
There are parallels to real life here, and not just solipsism either. When that last romantic movie came out, we had another sort of world to watch it in. 2004 was the depths of the Bush administration, andparadoxically (or perhaps not) the dark time enabled the heights of fantasy, and particularly of fantasies about hope, as a certain campaign slogan suggested. It stretched right out of the movies into politics. Unfortunately, out here in the realworld, we don’t have to force disillusionment; you’re all seeing the same headlines about the NSA that I am. The thing, you see, about Before Midnight’s disillusionment with romance is that it is the absolute truth, the (slight) problems all of execution, not conceit.
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