Before Midnight extends Richard Linklater’s extraordinary sequence of films, begun eighteen years ago with Before Sunrise and continuing, nine years later, with Before Sunset. The films follow the ups and downs of a young couple, Céline and Jesse, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. They first meet at the same moment we first meet them, on a train crossing Europe, and part (promising to meet back in Vienna six months hence) fourteen hours of their time and almost two hours of our time later, just in time to end Before Sunrise. Many people who saw the film when it appeared in 1995 wondered, some months later, what Céline and Jesse would have been up to. How could things work out? It was too soon for a sequel.
When the second film, Before Sunset, arrived nine years later, I half-hoped that it would chronicle that reunion in Vienna, though it was hard to be optimistic. Instead the film opens in Paris, at Shakespeare and Company, where Jesse, on a book tour to promote a novel called Before Sunrise, answers the gathered crowd’s prurient questions: How much of the novel was real? Does the couple meet again as they’d promised? Jesse won’t say, though the answer has to be no, since, already at this point, we suspect that Linklater’s idea is that we should feel our own experience of Jesse and Céline is perfectly congruent with their experience of each other: meeting when they meet, parting when they part, going about our lives for nine years without them as they do without each other. And so, no surprise, since we’re back, they’re back: Céline appears in the rear of the store and the film is underway.
Before Sunset took place entirely in the narrowing interval before Jesse’s plane departs for the States, where a wife and young son expect him. Another good-bye looms; the couple keeps pushing the deadline back, claiming more and more of that ninety or so minutes for themselves. The film looks as though it will end at several points, but the characters conspire to lengthen it. In the end, there is no good-bye: this time Céline and Jesse will get more time with each other than we get with them. They talk and laugh and flirt in Céline’s apartment in Paris, and then the screen goes dark. It is as though they noticed we were peering at them and abruptly pulled the shades.
Their existence in overtime could last an instant, it could last an eon: but in any case, the couple now has an existence beyond the interval of filmed time. The details are a little too convenient: Jesse is in a loveless marriage and Céline has a boyfriend who travels. They’re going to stick together, it’s clear. Because they seem to transcend their own fictionality (for the viewer and, in the …
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