Before Midnight

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

There was one scene in Before Midnight that I found surprisingly upsetting. It’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and his teenage son are preparing to say goodbye at the airport. Jesse’s son has been holidaying with his father in Greece but now he has to return home to his mother in America. There’s nothing in the scene that calls attention upon itself. The conversation is the usual stuff. They talk about school, about sports and about other trivialities. Plus, Jesse’s son seems incapable of stringing more than two sentences together. But the understatement is its strength - it bubbles with things left unsaid. And when Jesse’s son finally does say something meaningful, by telling his dad that its the best summer he’s ever had, Jesse is quietly overwhelmed.

But it’s just a great scene overall. There’s a great moment, after Jesse’s son has headed into security, where Jesse waits for his son to turn back and wave goodbye. He’s yearning for it. He desperately wants it. But it never happens. Alas, Jesse’s son is a teenager and has yet to develop any lingering sentiment. This is no big deal to him. He’s still young - he still has plenty of time. But Jesse is now becoming aware of how fleeting life is and how much everyone means to him. He’d die just to receive some acknowledgement from his son.

The scene also kind of echos the end of Before Sunrise where Jesse says goodbye to Celine (Julie Delpy). He exits the train station on his own, kind of in a haze. He’s just had the best night of his life and he wants that feeling to last forever but now he’s been cut adrift; he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. And so it is in Before Midnight as he staggers out of the airport. He doesn’t want to have to say goodbye.

Maybe this is why the scene resonated so much with me. I’m far too accustomed to saying goodbye to loved ones at airports. For a while I seemed to be doing it every couple of months. And it never really gets any easier. The desire is to always have other people orbiting you, but as you get older you realise that’s not possible. People have their own lives and you can’t dictate where they put roots down. But it still doesn’t make it any easier when you have to leave them or if they decide to build a life away from you.

Jesse’s life now is firmly with Celine. They live together in Paris and they have two children. Near the beginning we have a fantastic scene where they talk about what lousy parents they are - their daughters have been wanting to see some ancient ruins, but as they’re asleep in the back of the car, mum and dad are reluctant to wake them and break their peace and quiet. The dialogue and acting are wonderfully natural and it’s a promising beginning to the movie.

After this, Before Midnight begins to wobble a little bit. There are a couple of frustrating scenes that seem to go on for far too long. One deals with Jesse talking about his new writing projects. They sound incredibly pretentious, which is perhaps the point, but lots of the scene revolves around a friend fawning over what a genius he is. But as Jesse talks about his ideas, you begin to wonder what his friend has been smoking, because these novels sound unbearable.

The next scene also had me worried. Wealthy people sit around a table in an idyllic locale, drinking wine and eating good food while trying to figure out love and the problems with the world. Sorry, but I have very little tolerance for these kinds of scenes. It’s hard for me to listen to your bitching while you’re guzzling wine in a locale that looks like it should be an Unesco heritage site. Most people, when they’re trying to figure things out, have to sit around the table eating microwave pizza while staring at flaking walls as Splash plays on the TV behind them. You meanwhile, privileged wine guzzler, should just take a look at the paradise you’re living in. You don’t really have it that hard. Yes, you have the same needs as everyone else, live in fucking paradise, not Romford! I’m sure it’s easier to figure things out when you have the sea to look at instead of chavs stealing your flowerpots.

However, as frustrating as most of the scene is, it does have a poignant ending. One of the guests talks about her dead husband and how she can no longer really remember what he looks like. She also talks about how we appear and then disappear. And this is one of the themes of the film - how transitory everything is. In life we’re doomed to live on this earth for the equivalent of a few seconds. But love can be even more fleeting than that. When it starts, everyone thinks it’s forever, but it takes work to keep it shining. It can die far too easy.

As the film progresses, and Jesse and Celine are thankfully left on their own to hog the screen, you realise that they’re at a crossroads in their relationship. They can either stay together or they can go their separate ways.

The conceit of the film is that they have an evening to themselves away from their children and friends - their friends have booked them a hotel room. The intention, of course, is that they’ll have a romantic evening on their own.

On the way to the hotel they talk about how they met and their hopes and fears for the future. Everything seems fine but there are one or two little cracks. At one point Celine asks Jesse whether, if they were on the train again where they first met, and if she looked as she does now, would Jesse make a move for her. He dithers a little and she gets annoyed at him. She’s looking for reassurance that he still desires her but he fails to provide an emphatic response. In his defence, he’s desperately trying not to lie to her. Were they both single and if they didn’t know each other, his older self probably wouldn’t start that conversation, either because his youthful fearlessness has gone or because a single, middle-aged Jesse would do the cliched older man thing and try and find some young girl. So poor Jesse is kind of trapped. He still loves and desires Celine, but he doesn’t want to lie to her, so his weird response just ends up sounding weasley. Jesse tries to worm his way out of things by saying that it doesn’t matter, that when it counted he made the first move, but it’s too late. Celine’s question was a little test and he spectacularly failed. He should have just said yes.

Later on we find out that there’s maybe more reason for this question than we thought. When Celine and Jesse get to the hotel they have a big fight. As each person digs into the other, foolishly trying to ‘win’ the argument, we find out that Jesse might have possibly slept with a young fan of his while on a book tour. Jesse doesn't admit to it but he doesn't deny it either, which, as far as men go, means that he did it. But the whole feeling that you have as you watch them argue is that these issues should have already been resolved. If you think your partner has been cheating, you should try and find out. And then if they have, you can either leave them or try and give them a second chance. But if you give them a second chance, you need to do just that. You can’t throw it in their face when you have a disagreement. Forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting, but you can’t bring it up as a weapon when things get tough.

But of course, this is much easier said than done. In an ideal world you’d be able to talk about all your problems and get everything figured out with a level head, but relationships are complicated and messy. When you have a row, the gloves can come off. It’s a defence thing. You feel like you’re being attacked and so you go on the counter. And before you know it, things have escalated to a ridiculous extent.

The issues in Jesse and Celine’s relationship are multiple. Firstly, Jesse wants to be close to his son but Celine doesn’t want to move to America for this to happen. Which is entirely understandable. She has a career she wants to start and she has roots in Paris. At the same time, you can understand Jesse’s frustration. He moved across the world to be with her but now he wants to be near his son - his son is entering his most important years and Jesse feels like he’s stranded. Then you have Jesse’s apparent infidelity. It seems like this issue hasn’t been resolved at all and that Jesse hasn’t entirely won back Celine’s trust. Both of these things threaten to be cancers in their relationship. But they needn’t be. They just need to talk about them. They need to forget about scoring points and using other things against their partner and find the answers together.

But then what kind of film would we have if people just talked very reasonably to each other? Instead we have a magnificent film. Probably one of the best in the last few years. Jesse and Celine aren’t married, but what happens in Beyond Midnight is an alarmingly accurate look at what can happen in married life. I know that I saw quite a few echoes in the film.

Most of all, though, I really care about these people. I feel like we’ve grown up with them. It’s kind of the fictional equivalent of Michael Apted’s Up series. Every few years we check in to see how Celine and Jesse are doing. At the moment they don’t seem to be doing too great. But there’s a lot of hope for them. They still have a lot of love for one another. You just hope they can find a way through the bullshit life throws at them and the bullshit they create for themselves, because they’re obviously meant for one another.

I think I’d probably go so far to say that this is the best film in the series. Before Sunrise is breathtaking and magical, and Before Sunset finally makes your hopes and wishes for the characters come true, but Before Midnight is messy and complicated and surprisingly funny. I don’t remember laughing that much during the previous films, but here I laughed a lot. It’s such a rich, vivid film. It deserves all the plaudits and awards it can get its hands on.

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