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.