Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 1, 2017)
In 1995’s Before Sunrise, American boy Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French girl Celine (Julie Delpy) enjoyed one magical day/evening together in Vienna before they he went home. In 2003’s Before Sunset, they reunited in Paris and got reacquainted with each other before Jesse flew back to the States.
Or did he? Sunset ended with a cliffhanger that left open the possibility that Jesse stayed in Europe with Celine.
For nine years, fans wondered what became of Jesse and Celine, and they got their answer via 2013’s Before Midnight. We learn that Jesse left his wife and kid in America to be with Celine in Europe.
Celine and Jesse have their own twin daughters Ella (Jennifer Prior) and Nina (Charlotte Prior), and his teen son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) visits them during a vacation in Greece. After Hank flies back to the States, Jesse and Celine wander the area together and chat about domains that reflect their relationship.
In Midnight, we finally get the progression of events fans hoped for back in 1995. Viewers all wanted them to end up together in Sunrise, and they experienced those dreams again in 2004, so Midnight lets these desires come to fruition.
On the surface, Midnight seems to pay off with “happily ever after”, since it shows Jesse and Celine stayed together and had a family. However, the movie depicts the struggles they experience and lets us see the difficult side of relationships.
Boy, does the film dig into those difficulties! Viewers who hope to embrace the grand romance of the first two movies will likely find disappointment – while Midnight comes with warm moments between the leads, it usually favors the darker side of the partnership.
On one hand, I appreciate this because it offers a more realistic take on the situation. While fans might like a semi-remake of Sunrise/Sunset with the characters in their 40s, this wouldn’t make much sense – at least not given the changes in their relationship between 2004 and 2013.
Since Jesse and Celine end up together as a couple, Midnight can’t replicate the formula of the first two films, and it needs to delve into the realities of partnership. It definitely takes the romantic sheen off of the two, as we get little of the giddy glee found in the prior films.
Unfortunately, Midnight goes too far in the “anti-romantic” direction, especially in the way it portrays Celine. During the first two movies, both characters seemed equally likable/charming, but the balance tilts far away from Celine here.
Far, far, far, far, far away, though perhaps some of this comes from my gender-based interpretation of events. As a man, I thinkMidnight portrays Celine as a shrew, one who nags and undercuts Jesse at almost every turn. With some girlfriends, I’ve lived that a few times myself, and it leads me to see Jesse as more sympathetic.
Perhaps women will view the circumstances differently and interpret Jesse as selfish while Celine acts as the pragmatic realist. If so, those women can write their own reviews to counteract mine – as I see it, this is a radically one-sided situation where Celine turns into the unlikable party.
Which seems like a miscalculation. As noted, in the first two films, both Jesse and Celine came across as appealing, so I don’t get the choice to make Celine so unpleasant here. Jesse provides some flaws as well, but he seems supportive of Celine for the most part and he’s the one forced to “fix” things by the film’s end.
Though I can’t help but wonder why. Actually, I take that back – I’ve been in enough complicated relationships to accept that sometimes one party needs to suck it up and make nice with the other in pursuit of the greater good, so I can understand why Jesse doesn’t respond in kind when Celine comes at him.
But boy, do I wish he would! Celine criticizes and nags and attacks Jesse so often that it sometimes feels like Linklater decided to remake Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, though with just one horrible character instead of two.
In addition to this imbalance, Midnight departs from the first two movies due to its scope. Sunrise and Sunset barely allowed screentime to anyone other than Jesse and Celine, whereas Midnight opens up matter more.
I’m not wild about this choice. While I’m fine with the decision to make Midnight less romantic than the prior movies, I think it should’ve stayed with the same conceit in which 99 percent of the dialogue/narrative revolved around the leads.
Much of the movie does go down that path, but the first one-third or so of Midnight becomes more “democratic”. Not only do we get to know Hank a little bit, but we also hear a lot from the other folks with whom Celine and Jesse vacation.
All of this makes might make the Midnight wonder if Linklater couldn’t show up on set for a few days and Woody Allen took over for him. All the languid shots of intellectuals who discuss relationships and life meaning seems Allen-like to me. These parts don’t fit the Before framework well, and they can seem like clumsy exposition.
While I appreciate its attempts to broaden the series’ horizons, it feels like too much of a departure and aberration. The usual one-on-one framework would better satisfy, especially if we lost the extraneous characters.
Midnight isn’t a total loss, but I feel like it ends the trilogy on a lackluster note. I’m happy to get a better idea of what happened to Celine and Jesse – I just wish the film came across as something more than one long bitchfest.