Tuesday, May 28, 2013
In 1995's "Before Sunrise," Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American on a Eurail pass, met Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student, on a train. They got off at Vienna and walked around the city talking and falling in something like love. Director Richard Linklater made an entire movie - and now an entire series - out of nothing more than walking and talking, offering to audiences awash in action blockbusters a two-hour respite, the chance to eavesdrop on two smart and appealing people in intelligent conversation. He built exquisite tension of Jesse's impending flight back to the States, and whether this enchanted evening would or could lead to anything lasting. After its chosen conclusion, Linklater retraced Celine's and Jesse's steps, showing us the now-empty streets they'd walked and the landmarks they'd passed, and the sequence was devastatingly effective, one of the seminal scenes of film in the '90s, not because of some pretty Austrian sights but for the feeling of instant nostalgia it evoked and the emotional wallop it packed.
Nine years later, Delpy, Hawke and Linklater reunited for "Before Sunset." Jesse wrote a book based on the evening he and Celine shared, and came to France as part of a European book tour. Celine read about the engagement and came to the bookstore to see him again. This time, they walked around Paris talking, reminding us how sorely we'd missed the breadth and depth and insight of their conversation. And, again, Linklater closed with a passage of breathtaking visual beauty and almost unbearable emotional force. "Before Sunset" made my top-ten list in 2004, and made me wonder how the beauteous and absurdly fetching Delpy hadn't become a big star in the interim.
Thankfully, after some doubt, the three agreed to reconvene for the new "Before Midnight," and we're so lucky they did. This is without any doubt the finest film of the first half of 2013, sure to end high atop my list. The searing honesty of its script - crafted by both lead actors in collaboration with Linklater - makes for both the hardest hits and the richest and truest laughter so far this year.
It is again nine years later, and Jesse has left his wife for Celine. He enjoys partial visitation of his young adolescent son Hank, and joins Celine in raising their two twin daughters. This film is set in Greece, where Jesse and Celine are enjoying their last few days of a sponsored sabbatical at the home of Patrick, a famous author who has mentored Jesse. Some new Greek friends have volunteered to watch their girls for the night and have put them up at a luxury hotel (it even has air conditioning). The stage is set for what should be an evening of great romance.
But the moony dreams and fantastic reveries of "Sunrise" give way here to the earthbound and trying but rewarding realities of relationships and parenthood. What ends up taking place in the hotel room is not - at least not until perhaps later - a steamy sexual encounter but rather the best, smartest, funniest, saddest, most lacerating argument in the history of movie arguments. It unfolds in an unbroken sequence that lasts about half an hour, and there is unlikely to be a better sequence in any film all year. You find yourself first rooting for her, then for him, then for her again, then him again, before remembering how silly it is to be taking sides when their very happiness hangs in the balance. (Hawke is so sexy here, though, you may want to tell Jesse, "If she won't have you, I will.") Having invested so many years in Jesse and Celine, Hawke and Delpy know just what buttons to push for maximum effectiveness, and they hold nothing back. The scene is raw and draining and exhilarating.
Here is the culmination of a series of great movies, each of which stands beautifully on its own and which together comprise perhaps the best series in modern film. The picturesque, sun-drenched and olive-oil-infused "Before Midnight" is indeed lovely to look at, but it's infinitely more: funny, sexy, brutal, fearless. In short, a treasure.