Before Midnight (2013): Reality Check

Spoiler Alert: It’s impossible to discuss this film meaningfully without giving out the storyline, same with the two prequels.


We are gleaners of memories. An interesting parallel applies to the two characters Celine and Jesse as well as ourselves as audience. But if you haven’t seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, it would enhance your viewing pleasure to watch them first.

Flashback: Before Sunrise (1995)

Before SunriseTwo young people, Parisian Celine (Julie Delpy) and American Jesse (Ethan Hawkes) meet on a train passing through Europe. They strike up a conversation and become so in-tuned with each other that when the train arrives Jesse’s stop in Vienna, he convinces Celine to get off with him even though her destination is Paris. There for just one night until sunrise, they walk around the city and talk about life, death, love, religion, relationships, and being transients… for they know this may well be their only encounter with each other in both of their lives. The next morning Jesse has to fly back to the U.S. As they part, they promise to meet again in six month at the same hour, on the same train platform. Throughout the film, we feel fate, or whatever you call it, has a strong presence in their short few hours together. We feel their sincerity in capturing those precious  moments, as we hear Celine’s words ring true:

“If there’s any kind of magic in this world… it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.”

Flashback: Before Sunset (2004)

Before SunsetNine years after that chance meeting, Jesse is in Paris on the last leg of a book tour. He has written a book based on that memorable encounter nine years ago. At the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Celine shows up. They now meet for a second time, again for a short few hours before Jesse has to leave on a plane to fly back to the U.S. Their conversation reveals that, alas, their well intended reunion six months after their first chance meeting has turned into a star-crossed, missed opportunity. After that, fate has led them down separate paths. Jesse is now married and has a son. Celine, still on her own, yearns for that first romance to develop but now seems even more elusive.

To the present: Before Midnight (2013)

Before Midnight

So we have been following Jesse and Celine like a longitudinal study, albeit meeting them just twice within this eighteen year period. In the first two films, director Richard Linklater has us follow Jesse and Celine in real time through long takes, walking along with them in Vienna and Paris, listening in on their conversations and see them pour their hearts out, just to be heard, to be known. Those were romantic moments. This time is summer in Greece; this time is reality check.

We see Jesse and Celine now married. What happens in between those nine years is that Jesse has divorced his wife in Chicago, come over to Paris, married Celine and together they have two lovely twin daughters. But things aren’t so idyllic, for Jesse is troubled by not being around for his now young teenaged son Hank from his previous marriage and whom he can only see in the summer. The film begins with Jesse seeing his son off at the airport.

For the next 15 minutes and in one stationary take through the front windshield of the car, we see a happy couple Jesse and Celine driving from the airport to a Greek country house, with their twin daughters sleeping in the backseat. We hear them talk, yes, they love to talk to each other, just as we’ve seen in the past.

In the setting of an idyllic seaside residence, Jesse and Celine join a small gathering of writers. we see them prepare and eat healthy Greek salads and discuss equally idyllic topics such as writing, love, knowing each other, virtual reality (yes, for the contemporary effect), and being transients in life. Again, that first train encounter comes to mind. In conclusion they drink to ‘passing through’.

The next act is reminiscence of previous Before films… Jesse and Celine walk to a hotel paid for by their writer friends, who have also taken up the duty of babysitting their twins so the two of them can fully enjoy each other for the night. For twenty minutes the camera follows them in real time strolling through some scenic rural town toward their country hotel, exchanging thoughts like before. But no, not totally like before, for now they are eighteen years older, 41, and each with emotional undercurrents running deep.

Five minutes in the hotel room, discordant riptides begin to surface. Talk turns into quarrel. Why, this is just too real. In the past, we see them only in romantic mode. Now as they expose their underlying thoughts and suspicions, tempers flare, words turn callous. We would silently say ‘ouch!’ occasionally.

The beginning scene of the first film, Before Sunrise, has become a stark foreshadowing… sitting near Jesse and Celine on that train, two middle-aged couple argue fiercely in German. Seeing their temper flare but not understanding what they were arguing about, Jesse and Celine ponder on the question of how two people can grow old together in harmony.

Now here in what is supposed to be an ideal get-away, for twenty minutes we are the invisible witnesses of a marital conflict, and we would want to stay in there to see what happens next, not because of the schadenfreude effect, but because this is just too real.

Romance is holiday, marriage is work.

Hawke and Delpy own these scenes depicting realistically what marriage could entail. Other films readily come to mind… Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage (1973) and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992). Before Midnight is a contemporary version, with a highly watchable backdrop and natural performance. Unlike Bergman and Allen, Linklater is commendable in crafting a more positive ending. It’s refreshing to see a glimmer of hope at the end of nasty quarrels.

In the final act, Jesse attempts to woo his wife back. How he does it is most endearing. Every moment in the present is an opportunity to create a fond memory to look back to in the future. This complicated package called love is a piece of work. Director Linklater and his two stars, who co-wrote the screenplay with him, might well have passed to us the secret of marital success… Before too late, glean fond memories from the past to sustain the relationship at present; before too late, create more loving memories to carry it into the future.

One line from Celine in Before Sunset is most apt here: “Memory is a wonderful thing if we don’t have to deal with the past.” Jesse might have known this too well, not to leave the present a mess for future to deal with, but leave it as a pleasant memory to cherish in the days ahead.

With a trilogy of films beginning with the word ‘Before’ in the title, we should know that time is of the essence. Time to make the present a memorable past for the future, before too late.

That line still lingers as the film ends… ‘To passing through.’

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples for all three films


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

20 thoughts on “Before Midnight (2013): Reality Check”

    1. architect of the jungle,

      Thanks. I’m not sure what made you feel annoyed about the last two. Could it be the long take and constant dialogues? Yes, it takes some getting used to. But I feel the dialogues and the actors’ performance are what make this trilogy unique. I think you’d enjoy this one.


      1. I found your blog through Victoria “Litlove”‘s blog… I am looking forward to seeing Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, although I imagine it will be odd to see Ethan Hawke on screen without Julie Delpy.

        I do like the ultra realistic, real time feel of these trilogies, capturing what it is just to be two different people in a relationship. The acting is so charming and convincing, the issues covered are ones that we all identify with, the settings are beautiful, but it’s more than that. The sum of parts is definitely greater.


        1. Denise,

          Welcome to the pond. Here’s the place for throwing in one’s two pebbles to make ripples after seeing a film or reading a book. I highly anticipate Boyhood, albeit I’m not sure if it will even come to our city. On another note, have you seen the film Le Weekend? That is like the fourth instalment of Jesse and Celine’s story.


          1. I’ve not seen Le Weekend, but I like both Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent and I can see that they have similarities in the types of characters they play to Jesse and Celine.

            My friend has just emailed to say she is too busy with run up to family holiday to see Boyhood, so it may be a DVD night in – I imagine it will be on for another week max in Brighton. (We are lucky with our cinema here though.)


            1. Good for you to have it on the big screens. Before I Go To Sleep will be released early Sept. in the UK and the US, but not here in Canada.


            2. I was reading that you don’t have Netflix either. (As in not the full US version.) Sad as Canada strikes me as a lovely country otherwise. You have great films and literature, or maybe we just get the best ones that you produce (I like Miriam Toews and Stories We Tell was a very original film).


            3. I’m afraid to say, Denise, that there’s a huge cultural disparity in our vast land. We just might get this film some time in the future here in our city Calgary in the western province of Alberta (have you heard of it?), but usually Toronto would be the first screening it. Yes, literature is rich… we even get our own Nobel Laureatte now with Alice Munro winning. And yes, there are talented filmmakers like Sarah Polley (Yes, have seen Stories We Tell), David Cronenberg, Denis Villeneuve… However, whether we get to see their works is another issue.


  1. I would love to read this review but have yet to see Before Midnight.
    I loved the first two a lot. I waited the nine long years between them all…and recentle introduced my husband to them…we can’t wait to see the final instalment.


    1. Brona,

      I understand. Do go watch it and come back to throw in your two pebbles. And, I wouldn’t call it a ‘final instalment’. So far, it’s a trilogy, but one never knows. This last film could be a springboard to another one in the future when they get older still. 😉


  2. I’ve yet to see this but glad to read your take on it — I’d already heard most of the spoilers and was uncertain if I wanted to enter their lives again and see them unhappy. I know it’s real life but sometimes I don’t want real life! I want the fantasy of it. Still, I’ve been curious and now would be more likely to take the plunge.


    1. Jeanie,

      As I mentioned in the post, the quarreling is 20 mins. The rest of the film is very enjoyable. This 20 mins. is necessary to give a balance to the overall effect. You don’t want a sacharine-filled dessert. 😉


  3. I must say, the four of us who saw this together, all said “ouch” more often than we’d like to admit to! I’d seen Before sunset but remembered very little. I don’t think that spoilt it, though I can see from your comments that seeing them both would probably enhance the enjoyment – if only because they are great actors to watch. And what a delight to watch an intelligent film with a good script and no forced drama or whizz-band special effects.


    1. WG,

      Yes, and that’s exactly what I did. I borrowed the DVD’s of the prequels and watched them again, before and after watching the third instalment. And that’s what I found… the consistency of subject matter and the styling, making this trilogy a class of its own. “And what a delight to watch an intelligent film with a good script and no forced drama or whizz-band special effects.” So true. Purely refreshing.


  4. What an interesting series of movies. I like how they are the same actors doing the parts through the same time period. I don’t think that happens so very often. I’ve not seen any of them but they sound good. Perhaps I can convince Bookman to watch them sometime.


    1. Stefanie,

      I’m sure you and Bookman would enjoy these films. What’s summer for if not to catch up on some good ‘old’ movies. Best to start from the beginning. 😉


  5. I confess – every time I find a film or book described in words like “ravishing romance”, I’m ready to move on. It just doesn’t appeal. My friends and I talk about this from time to time. Being old, and single, and desperately concerned with caring for ourselves as we face the trials of aging, this sort of film does nothing but depress. I don’t want fantasy, or something that gets the juices of envy or regret stirred up – I want something that addresses the realities of my life.

    It does sound like the trilogy is well done – it’s a very creative approach to exploring a relationship over time. Every film isn’t right for everyone – but I’m glad to know about even those that don’t immediately appeal. At least I’ll recognize these three now if I happen to bump into them!


    1. Linda,

      Well, first off, I wouldn’t call this a ‘ravishing romance’. In my dictionary, I wouldn’t even classify it as a ‘romance’. To put it philosophically, it’s an existential exploration of the human condition, of the dichotomy between ‘fate’ (that’s what you can’t control), and choice (that’s what you can). And, since we follow these two characters through 18 years in real time, we see them aging from 23 years old to now 41. Still young, I admit, but aging just the same. And with years come the baggage of life. In the extensive dialogues, aging and mortality is dealt with. While still relatively young, they know they need to live the present in a way to prepare for a future of old age. This trilogy is a genre of its own.

      Now, another thing I’d like to emphasize, which I think I just might put it as a disclaimer on all my review posts. My reviews are my thoughtful evaluation, my own initiative for the love of books and films. It’s not a promo for the product. 😉


  6. I stumbled upon the first film on a lazy afternoon and became obsessed with it. That was around 2007. Then I realized there was another film (Before Sunset) released in 2004 and immediately watched and loved it. Needless to say, I am stuck on these characters. Side note: I went to the same Texas high school as Richard Linklater.


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