Before Midnight: Sundance Review

Before Midnight

U.S.A. (Director: Richard Linklater, Screenwriters: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater)

We meet Jesse and Celine nine years on in Greece. Almost two decades have passed since their first meeting on that train bound for Vienna. Before the clock strikes midnight, we will again become part of their story.Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Ariane Labed, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick.

Reality bumps romance aside in funny, harrowing relationship study.

Delpy, Hawke and Linklater reunite for a third remarkable installment of the Before... series.

PARK CITY -- Faces crease, bodies swell, and life accumulates such a mountain of crummy responsibilities it seems there's no space left for living. But the work Richard Linklater and company started in 1995's Before Sunrise retains a clarity of spirit undimmed by 18 years. In Before Midnight, its two lovers not only have longings and worries we identify with; they fight as we do, too. They are as convincing in middle age as they were as passionate youths sharing a one-night encounter. Though this stage is harder to watch, audiences who have aged along with Celine and Jesse will treasure this new episode.

Yes, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) missed his plane at the end of 2004's Before Sunset. He wound up leaving his wife, pairing up with (but not marrying) Celine (Julie Delpy), and having twin girls. We meet the family at the end of a Greek vacation, with Jesse awkwardly packing son Henry onto a plane to Chicago, where he lives year-round with Jesse's ex-wife. The lovers have moved from infatuation to weary parenthood in between movies, and as Linklater observes their long ride from the airport back to their vacation house, full of low-level bickering about jobs and parenting, one worries the characters have forgotten how to talk about their inner lives.

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Not so. Meeting up with their hosts and Greek friends for a final, leisurely dinner, they get philosophical about human connection in the digital age, about romantic commitment and ideals that might never have worked for anybody. Then they set off, just the two of them, through ruins and cobblestone alleys. Their friends have rented them a nearby hotel room and offered to watch the twins, and their trip to this romantic night together affords us the kind of extended walk-and-talk pleasure that was so absorbing in the first two films.

Then comes the hotel, the start of some "I still think you're hot" sex...and a ringing cell phone. The fight that ensues is agonizing, with new scabs pulled off every time the anger seems about to subside. As in Before Sunset, Hawke and Delpy wrote the script with Linklater, and this painful centerpiece feels like the distillation of three lives' worth of real-world meltdowns. It's also often very funny.

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If the first film ended with us wondering if the two would actually keep their "we'll meet in six months" date, and the second wondered if Jesse would give in to temptation, Before Midnight offers the possibility that the couple's odds-defying relationship will end in a one-day conflagration of pent-up resentment and parental guilt. The previous films' manufactured deadlines -- a train departure, a trip to the airport -- are no longer with us; the pair are now together until they decide not to be. Turns out, that's as dramatic as a ticking clock.

Production company: Faliro House, Venture Forth, Castle Rock Entertainment
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally, Ariane Labed, Yannis Papadopoulos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriters: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Producers: Richard Linklater, Christos V. Konstantakopoulous, Sara Woodhatch
Executive producers: Jacob Pechenik, Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, John Sloss
Director of photography: Christos Voudouris
Music: Graham Reynolds
Editor: Sandra Adair
Sales: John Sloss
No rating, 108 minutes