Director Richard Linklater's Before Midnight is a welcome rarity, a movie that digs deeply into the core of a relationship that's been going on for almost 20 years. At a time when insipid rom-coms tend to dominate the nation's multiplexes, a smart relationship movie can seem like a cultural antidote: fragile, tentative and absolutely essential.
This third in a series of films about two lovers who first met in Vienna in 1995 (Before Sunrise) and who reunited in Paris in 2004 (Before Sunset) continues and perhaps even strengthens Linklater's talky, introspective inquiry into the nature of love between two people who can't always get out of their own heads.
As those familiar with the previous two movies know, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have had their problems: However, travel deprivation isn't one of them. This time, Jesse and Celine, now married to each other, find themselves in beautiful Greece with their twin girls.
The movie begins with Jesse feeling blue and a bit guilty because his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is about to rejoin his mother in the U.S. Looming separation triggers one of Jesse's nagging issues: Although he and Celine have two beautiful daughters, Jesse hasn't been the father Hank, his offspring from a previous marriage, needs or deserves.
Jesse's talk about moving back to Chicago upsets Celine, who believes she's already sacrificed a lot for the sake of their relationship. A dedicated environmentalist, the French-born Celine just has landed a job that allows her to pursue her career in an ideal European setting. The last thing she wants is to uproot and move to the U.S.
Say this: Jesse and Celine know how to suffer in comfort. They're the guests of a novelist (played by the cinematographer Walter Lassally) who has invited Jesse and his brood to spend time at his very pleasant villa.
Linklater is one of the few directors working today who makes no bones about directing talk-heavy films. Conversations evolve during a meal that Jesse and Celine share with a group of friends. Jesse and Celine stake out more turf, as they stroll about town. A hotel room provides the setting for what begins as an opportunity for romantic renewal but quickly degenerates into a fight.
Jesse and Celine's marriage may be shaky, but Before Midnight isn't a hand-wringing, soul-rending look at a marriage in its death throes. As was the case in the previous two movies, there's an exploratory quality to the conversations between Jesse and Celine, although this time, there's also plenty of anger, particularly on Celine's part.
Meanwhile, Jesse -- who earns his living as a writer -- mulls ideas for a new novel and continues his on-going inner monologue, which occasionally presents itself in the form of conversation with others.
Hawke and Delpy give such impressively naturalistic performances that they leave us hoping that Linklater will check in with Jesse and Celine again -- even though he's running out of times of day to provide these movies with names.
And keep this in mind: Despite the loose and deceptively informal nature of Before Midnight, it takes focus and discipline to keep a movie such as this feeling relaxed, unstudied and real.