It’s hard to believe that its been almost 20 years since we first met Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Cèline (Julie Delpy) on that train from Budapest to Paris. The two hopped off in Vienna which spawned one of the most engaging romances ever to grace the big screen. Nearly 10 years would pass before the two would meet again in “Before Sunset”, a smart and enthralling sequel that only caused audiences to fall for these two and their story even more.
Now jump ahead another 9 years. Director Richard Linklater again teams up with Hawke and Delpy to show us where Jesse and Cèline’s lives have taken them. Fans of this series understand that the less you know going in the better so I’m staying far away from details. But to set things up the film starts with Jesse putting his son Hank on a plane back to his mother after spending the summer together. Jesse and Hank’s mother have divorced and their relationship is strained at best. Hank’s departure leaves Jesse with a torrid whirlwind of emotions that swirl throughout the entire film and serve some pretty key plot points later in the film.
As Jesse leaves the airport we see Cèline standing by a car waiting along with two lovely little girls. We find out the two have been together since the last film and, along with Hank, they all have spent several weeks together on the Greek Peloponnese peninsula. We learn all of this in the first few minutes of the film and I’m not going any further than that. As I mentioned, this is a story best appreciated with little to no knowledge of where its going. It uses many of the same familiar narrative structures of the previous films while also making a few pretty big departures. At times it’s just as captivating as the previous films and these two characters are still fascinating. Yet with those things being true, there is still a sense that this is a film deeply connected to the other films but somehow lacking in key areas.
First the good. We get to spend more time with Jesse and Cèline. I swear I could listen to these two talk for hours. And there is a lot of talking. Where big-budget movies move from one large action set piece to another, the “Before” pictures move from one long conversation to another. But fans know these conversations are simply absorbing. Nothing has changed here. Another fluid and sharp script is put together and the rich, natural performances from Hawke and Delpy make the exchanges between these two work brilliantly. We are cleverly told of how their lives have transpired and we watch as they take some difficult turns. The conversations feature different tones that we haven’t seen before but they remain utterly enthralling.
Another big plus is how well connected it is with the previous two films. That may sound like simple praise but this trilogy is unique in that it’s impossible to separate them from one another. In fact, that’s the big thing that makes this a hard movie to review. It’s so deeply rooted in the other two movies that it’s difficult to judge it as a standalone film. But that connectedness is also what makes it so alive and vibrant. I was so anxious to see these characters again because of their past and my investment in it. I also genuinely care for them and watching some of the things play out in “Before Midnight” is crushing yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
Yet while I was hooked on every exchange between Jesse and Cèline and their story was of great interest to me, there were a few things that set this film apart but not always for the better. For me the intimacy and romance I was so fond of wasn’t as powerful here. Now understand I’m not saying it’s nonexistent. We certainly get it in doses. It’s just in a different stage. I realize that the specific story directions understandably soak up some of the romance. But some of it is missing and I found myself longing for it.
There also seems to be a constant preoccupation with sex in nearly every conversation. The characters seem fixated on it and they kept beating that same drum throughout the entire film. Unlike the other movies where the dialogue seamlessly and gracefully flowed with no feeling whatsoever that it was scripted, here the constant sex jabber felt so contrived. I also missed the sense of location that permeated “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset”. Vienna and Paris were used subtly in those films but to great effect. Here we get brief looks at the Greek locations but nothing of any value. To be fair, Linklater isn’t trying to make a large visual impression with his camera but I still missed that component.
While this series has been called “The Before Trilogy” by some I hope that’s not the case. The ending isn’t nearly satisfying enough to end a trilogy but more importantly I want to see Jesse and Cèline again. I know I’ve voiced some frustrations with this film but it’s far from being bad. In fact there are several scenes that I absolutely adored. But I can’t shake some of my issues with it – issues that don’t make it a poor film, but they do make it a lesser chapter in this overall captivating love story. But true love can hit a few rough patches doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s what we get here.