Honestly, I'm not sure if it's possible -- at least, for me -- to objectively review Before Midnight as a standalone movie. There are several reasons for this, primary being this intimate relationship built with the two souls that Ethan Hawke an Julie Delpy have brought to life in Jesse and Celine. From their chance encounter and leap of faith into the streets of Vienna in Before Sunrise to their (not so) happenstance reacquainting in Paris during Before Sunset, writer/director Richard Linklater has invited the audience to grow to know them, rather intimately, through soul-searching conversations about philosophy, ambition, and the nuance of relationships. While Before Midnight obviously conveys a brilliant extension of the characters we've grown so deeply fond of, it's also the culmination of what they pondered during their leisurely bond-building walks, about growing older and whether they'd relish the routine and predictability of another person with time. Just like the real world and just like their previous encounters, the answers aren't clear cut.
Much like Before Sunset, Midnight begins with a scene centered on Jesse (Ethan Hawke) that gets the audience up to speed -- somewhat vaguely, to build a little suspense -- on what's happened since last encountering the couple nearly a decade ago. Fanciful romantics might picture a scenario where he cleanly broke away from his unhappy life and lived happily ever after with Celine (Julie Delpy) following their rendezvous in Paris, but between previous relationships and the geography between people that live in different countries, that's simply not reasonable. Before Midnight concerns itself with what their "happily ever after" really looks like: divorce, child custody, professional motivation and sacrifice, and the longevity of a bond as strong as theirs. Set against the beauty of the Peloponnese in Southern Greece for a family vacation (they have kids!), Celine and Jesse find some time out of their hectic lives to once again relish a foreign country and (re)explore one another, only without the whimsy of it being a literal first encounter after time apart.
Linklater's fascination with creating the illusion of real-time intimacy continues with Before Midnight, but it's more relaxed and spread out as it captures the day spent with Celine and Jesse before they return to the "real world". Instead of a patchwork of smaller conversations like Sunrise or the intentional real-time feel of Sunset's rushed circumstances, a few very lengthy exchanges take place in blocks across the span of a day, leaving time unaccounted for aside from quick, stunningly picturesque glimpses at vacation activities -- playing soccer, swimming -- that fill in the gaps. More importantly, the pair spend a fair amount of time either apart or in the company of others, notably this beautifully-done dinner scene at the Grecian home of one of Jesse's colleagues. This is a film about more than their continuing romantic saga; it's also a glimpse at how they've changed and stayed the same as individuals over their years together, as well as how their individuality both keeps them together and pushes them apart.
Thus, Before Midnight is far less idealistically romantic than the previous encounters with Celine and Jesse, but that's to be expected with the passage of time and the conflicts simmering underneath the surface, just on the edge of boiling. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy once again provide their writing input to elevate the growth of their characters' dialogue, working wonders as they discuss employment opportunities, religion, the battle of the sexes, and, above all else, age. The marriage between these actors' natural attitudes and their characters' personalities offers something unlike other productions: Hawke and Delpy interact as older iterations of those young strangers who took a chance by spending a night together in Vienna, yet some of the actors' own evolution as regular people pours through Celine and Jesse's waltz through the south of Greece. As fatigued, discouraged adult versions of their prior selves, Hawke and Delpy are authentic and brave to the bone, casually amusing and melancholy.
The other area where Before Midnight explores new territory, something its audience will either relish or find frustrating to absorb (or, like myself, both), is the emotional breaking point approached by their conversations: a quarrel. Linklater candidly depicts the exacerbation of a conflict between these two long-together people that hits a fork in the road, starting with a seed planted at the film's beginning that blossoms into something thorny and difficult to approach, yet worth the effort for them to tackle for the beauty still present. Details revealed in Celine and Jesse's conversations smartly latch onto one another, forming an intuitive chain reaction that'll surprise those in lasting relationships with how attuned their concerns, passions, and frustrations are with the mechanics of modern romantic pragmatism. It also encourages those watching to engage in some clever meta-fictional observation: which one is in the right or wrong, if either one are, and whether they're acting out of logical thinking or emotional anxiety.
None of this would be successful without feeling compassion for these two forty-somethings, which makes it beautiful, in a way, to see Celine and Jesse's relationship adapt in flawed yet heartening ways to the realistic changes thrown at them. Considering this couple once debated whether they should have sex during their first encounter or if they'd appreciate the expectedness that repetition brings to a relationship, it's spectacular to see the full gradient of experience leading them to this point of awareness of one another, for better or worse, with rough answers to those questions. Richard Linklater has crafted yet another expression of the authentic bond between two people that weathers the trials of time and ideology, ending on bittersweet, charming notes that leave one seriously considering what their future holds. The absence of a clear-cut answer among a complex fusion of sentiments reveals the maturity of Before Midnight, while preserving one's curiosity to eventually find out. Here's hoping the answer might reveal itself in another nine or so years.
Video and Audio:
Much as time has changed the characters and tone of the films, Before Midnight also adopts a new visual format for capturing a familiar aesthetic, shot at 1.85:1 on Arri Alexa digital cameras. Sony Home Entertainment have brought the colorful, robust, effortlessly textured cinematography to Blu-ray in an immaculate 1080p AVC treatment that took me instantly back to the experience of watching the film in the theater. Those scenes in the sun-drenched Grecian countryside are exemplary, with rich yellows and greens that impress with their vividness yet stay restrained where necessary. Details in vegetation, weathered ruins, and the clouds in the sky are razor sharp, as well as eye-grabbers like Ethan Hawke's facial hair and the minuscule dots in Julie Delpy's sundress. Skin tones are exceedingly lively in much the same way, adjusting to different light temperatures as the sun goes down or when they find an idyllic spot at a waterside cafe at sundown. While the digital source limitations can be spotted in a small handful of sequences (namely some occasional shimmering in clothing and murky backgrounds in complex depth-of-field shots, they're vstly trumped by how rock-solid the rest of the picture appears.
Surprisingly, there's a ton to admire in Before Midnight's 5.1 Master Audio track. Naturally, dialogue in one of Linklater's films has to be razor sharp in order to accurately convey the emotions present in their innate tones, which the track masterfully handles: Hawke's gruffness and Delpy's French alto rhythm coexist brilliantly with the shifting atmosphere of where they're talking, be it in the countryside among stony ruins or in the confines of a hotel bedroom. With that chalked off, the track them takes the opportunity to impress with its other joys as they mindfully separate to the surround channels, like the beauty of the small-orchestral music and little atmospheric effects, like the sound of gravel from walking outdoors and the clank of glasses during toasts. A few moments of dialogue trail off into muffled territory, but it's a brilliantly immersive experience. English and French subtitles are available.
Commentary with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy:
The plain and simple fact is that it's a delight to hear these three talk about making one of their films, which you get plenty of in this track. They talk about scouting shooting locations, choosing the right garments for scenes, organically introducing the audience to what's happened in their lives, and even elements used in the film that were taken from earlier concepts (they had a far more plain domestic idea sketched out). It's great to hear how well they remember the previous films, too, when details like whether Jesse's inclination towards writing was conveyed in the first film. They lovingly discuss the days of shooting and engage in thematic discussion about how this seems to be life that the characters wanted for themselves, as well as the general conceptualization process of how the trio finally got the film independently developed. Very solid and informative.
While the features are short on numbers outside of the commentary, the two that have been included do a moderate amount of heavy lifting. A brief featurette entitled Revisiting Jesse and Celine (7:19, HD) covers the trio's inspiration behind making the film and how they finally landed on something relevant to say about the characters, as well as why the involved kids so heavily in the storyline. The other piece is a Q&A with Hawke Delpy, and Linklater (37:03, HD), which discusses the film's roots as a truly independent production and continuation of the previous films' stories with moderator Elvis Mitchell for FilmIndependent.com. Their stories are detailed, humorous, and often touching, painting a portrait of the film's construction and inspiration exceedingly well, while Mitchell does a solid job (as usual) of bouncing around to different participants.
Before watching Richard Linklater's Before Midnight for a second time on Blu-ray, I indulged in the opportunity to pull out my (way, way dated) DVDs of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset for a marathon screening, a trio of European-set excursions focused on one ever-evolving pair of individuals that spans nearly twenty years. The experience is marvelous: while walking through gorgeous, iconic locales as they chat, Celine and Jesse's relationship, their demeanors, and their viewpoints on philosophical and mundane topics intentionally (and potently) shift with time, while the chemistry existing between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy remains delightful to behold as they, too, change in subtle ways. Midnight marks more than the latest entry in their saga, though, as it looks back at their previous experiences and presents their current relationship as a comparison to what they envisioned. But it's also simply the poignant depiction of two people who are enduring the tests of a complicated relationship, and whether they can ride out the storm created by the real-world conflicts that tried to keep them apart. Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-ray looks and sounds phenomenal, sporting a few strong extras including a commentary and lengthy Q&A session. Very, very Highly Recommended.