Much as I had always wanted to watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I’m ultimately glad that I waited to see each of these films until the past two weeks. Doing so saved me a few years of anxiously awaiting the third act of this set, Before Midnight. The series centers around two people, Jesse, portrayed by Ethan Hawke, and Celine, played by Julie Delpy, who meet on a train in Venice and spend the night together (Before Sunrise). They plan to meet again in six months time, but as viewers, we don’t know if that meeting ever happens until part two, Before Sunset. The sequel takes place nine years after the original when Jesse and Celine have another chance meeting. Though we learn that their planned meeting never took place eight years and six months ago, the two reconnect and regret that they failed to do so sooner. Though the ending of Before Sunset is ambiguous, it is extremely easy for viewers to assume the two end up together following this film.
My husband Mike regards certain of his favorite films as perfect movies. For me, the idea of a perfect movie was always hard to fathom. My concept of perfection is too mathematical – I consider things to be flawless in their simplicity, their adherence to an ideal form, the way in which they achieve a final solution without any remainders or untied strings. Even my favorite movies were far from perfect in my mind, given their nuances and complexity. The term “perfect” simply did not fit. But when I saw Before Sunset, I finally recognized the ability of a film to achieve perfection. It wasn’t so much that I absolutely adored the film and was sad to see it end after a mere 80 minutes. It had more to do with the film achieved so flawlessly in that limited span of time. There were spot-on performances, not-overly-contrived romance, realistic dialogue, appealing and well-developed characters, inspiring conversations touching upon thought-provoking themes, and an idyllic Parisian setting. Before Sunrise marked the realization of the previously-unattainable perfect form in film for me; it was exactly the movie I would have made given the premise provided. And so it was that I eagerly waited one week to view the next installment, Before Midnight, when it finally came to Baltimore.
I won’t say I was disappointed by Before Midnight – I knew it would be a much more realistic film than the other two and I had come to terms with the fact that the romance between Jesse and Celine could only go so far, eighteen years after the original. The movie is much more ground in reality than the previous too, both of which were delightfully romantic and idealistic. Now that Jesse and Celine are together, they have to deal with the struggles of working, parenting, long-distance parenting (Jesse has a child who lives in Chicago while he and Celine live in Paris), and trying to connect in spite of it all.
Like it’s forebears, Before Midnight was a film structured around dialogue and conversation, rather than action. The movie attempts to capture a relationship between two people through their interactions on a single day while on vacation. Starting when Jesse drops his son off at the airport, the couple then drives back to the house where they’ve been staying, their fifteen minute conversation on the drive captured in a single cut. They enjoy dinner with their hosts, then wander to a hotel where their friends have generously given them a free night’s stay. As always, the setting was beautiful, the acting impeccable, and the story gave me more than enough food for thought.
There is certainly something painfully realistic about the film, giving me pause as to how I will weather all of the struggles and pains of middle age with my own husband. But I was also extremely aggravated by Celine, whose neuroses grew tremendously, who stubbornly turned every discussion into a fight, who failed to give in to Jesse’s relentless attempts at appeasing and romancing her. Before Midnight could have easily been a film about two people trying to reconnect in spite of their busy lives – and I would have been quite pleased. That is, after all, what I expected. But the actual product went one step further. It felt like a film about two people whose relationship is completely falling apart in such a way that one person it clearly to blame for their failure. The character Celine truly alienated herself from Jesse and viewers. While I appreciate the film’s attempt at accurately reflecting reality, I’d like to believe that people want to make their relationships work in a way Celine did not. I go to the movies for an escape from reality and Before Midnight harped a little too much on fears of what I may become as a working mother twenty years down the road.
I don’t regret watching Before Midnight by any means. It was still a thought-provoking romance, as the previous two were also. And I have every intention of watching the next installment as I believe they’ve decided to continue making these films indefinitely every nine or so years. I simply wish it had been more satisfying, with less knock-down-drag-out fighting, more of a resolution, and a taste of the Celine that we all adored years ago. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are movies for romantics, and Before Midnight is designed for the realists among us. I happily consider myself to belong to the former camp – so at least I’ll always have the first two movies of this set.