Richard Linklater's Before Midnight - the third and possibly final installment in the director's ongoing screen romance that began with 1995's Before Sunrise and continued with 2004's Before Sunset - climaxes with a half-hour-long fight. You could, of course, say the same about most every superhero or Transformers picture released nowadays. The big difference, however, is that this particular battle royale takes place in the confines of one room and involves all of two characters. The bigger difference, speaking personally, is that this is one 30-minute screen fight that I actually wished would go on forever - though an eternal loop of the movie's first 70 minutes wouldn't have been unwelcome, either.
The danger in praising Before Midnight as much as I want to lies in those nine-year gaps between releases; its emotional payoff can't help but be substantially higher if, like me, you once waited nearly a decade for Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine to reunite, and have now been waiting another near-decade for them to return. (Linklater's Before project is like the fictional equivalent of filmmaker Michael Apted's extraordinary 7 Up experiment, a documentary series - one that's continued for half a century now - that finds a group of "ordinary" British citizens newly interviewed every seven years.) But while your pleasure here will certainly be intensified if you've experienced a real-time 18 years along with Jesse and Celine, this particular achievement by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (all of whom share a screenwriting credit) still feels like one for the ages, and one that can be hugely appreciated on its own terms - a scathing, hilarious, achingly affecting work that explores long-term commitment with a brutal honesty rarely attempted in American movies. The verbal slugfest at the center of Before Midnight may have made my stomach hurt for a good two hours afterward, yet it was also a profoundly exhilarating pain that, as subsequent viewings of the film will no doubt prove, I'll be more than eager to feel again and again.
So what's been happening with the American novelist Jesse and the French environmentalist Celine since we last saw them, the latter shaking her tail to Nina Simone and the former unapologetically missing his plane? Quite a lot, actually, as the lovers previously separated by geography and bad timing are now a devoted couple living in Paris, blessed with a pair of adorable twin girls. As Before Midnight's opening minutes make clear, though, discontentment has crept into our protagonists' lives. Seen at the tail end of a family vacation in Greece, the now-divorced Jesse feels ever more alienated from the teenage son he abandoned while Celine feels overwhelmed by the pressures of balancing motherhood and a career, and the pair bicker about these and other grievances during a lengthy car ride to a famed author's rural estate. (As frequently happens with the seemingly improvised, actually tightly scripted dialogue in the Before films, Linklater thrillingly allows this traveling conversation to run uninterrupted by edits for minutes on end.) But as the pair goes on to enjoy a casual dinner with friends, and then a leisurely walk to a nearby hotel - their dining companions having treated them to a night free of parental responsibilities - we slowly realize that Jesse's and Celine's early, moderately benign arguments were, in reality, signs of a deeper, more insidious unhappiness.
During Before Midnight's first hour, the mood of the film is hardly grim; Jesse and Celine still share the easy, breezy rapport and propensity for laughter we've always associated with them, and a relaxed lightness of tone is evident in Linklater's masterfully graceful tracking shots, Christos Voudouris' gorgeous, sun-kissed cinematography, and Graham Reynolds' lilting, unobtrusive score. Yet when the leads begin to fray one another's nerves on subjects such as family, work, and the future - Jesse's practiced, passive-aggressive rationality at war with Celine's uncontainable, self-righteous resentment - you can already sense the emotional tsunami brewing on the horizon. And when the two finally square off in their hotel room for a half hour of powerful and sublimely written and performed accusations, recriminations, and regrets buoyed by occasional bursts of unexpected humor, you're left with no doubt as to what you're seeing. If Before Sunset was the (suggested) Happily Ever After, Before Midnight is the After Ever After, where the wish-fulfillment fairytale of the previous films finally gives way to the messy contradictions and ugly truths inherent in maintaining a real-life, 'til-death-do-us-part relationship.
I really don't want to say much more about the experience of Linklater's latest, partly because so much of it is dependent on surprise - from minute to minute, you truly have no idea whether Jesse and Celine will be a functional couple when the end credits roll - and partly because, two days after seeing the film, I find myself still unable to adequately verbalize my feelings. (With the transcendent Hawke and Delpy giving performances of almost unparalleled naturalism and insight here, Jesse's and Celine's more forceful encounters make you feel as though you've accidentally entered a room during a hateful, real-life squabble between beloved friends, and are consequently frozen between sensations of fascination and nausea.) But I will say, and say readily, that Before Midnight moved me like no other big-screen entertainment has in years, and if I've now made the film sound almost too downbeat for words, nothing could be further from the truth. Jesse's and Celine's precise, at times vicious deconstruction of their relationship may be harrowing, but it's just part of a mosaic between two longtime friends and lovers that's also tender and funny and frustrating and beautiful and endlessly recognizable. This, Before Midnight says, is what life is. Thanks to the remarkable accomplishments of Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, it's also what an unequivocally great movie is.