It began 18 years ago. That’s in what we now quaintly call “real time,” i.e., the time that passes as the clock ticking (or humming) next to you registers the seconds and the minutes.
The movie was called “Before Sunrise.” That’s when the two fictional lovers met on a train to Vienna. And couldn’t seem to part.
Then, in 2004, came its sequel with the same actors “Before Sunset.” And now, in my opinion the finest film of 2013 so far, “Before Midnight,” also starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and opening in Buffalo on Friday.
In the three films, we have come to care deeply about these two extraordinary people. We are now watching them nine years later on holiday in Greece with their radiantly beautiful 8-year-old twin daughters.
It is a singular film achievement that we have watched these two performers over 18 years playing roles which they have always, in part, created as well as enacted. But it is equally singular – and probably far more important – to know that you will absolutely not need to have seen either “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” to enjoy the brilliance of “Before Midnight.”
If you have, you’re seeing something altogether amazing, quite beyond any continuing tale starring two actors you’ve seen before (and quite beyond Michael Apted’s documentary series following the same children in their lives at seven-year intervals).
“Before Midnight” exists entirely independently if you need it to. It’s the story of Jesse and Celine, two fortysomethings with twin daughters and a son from his previous marriage, who has just had what the teen calls the best summer of his life with the four of them in Greece.
And that, smack in the middle of Jesse’s loving paternal heart, is where the trouble starts. As Jesse says goodbye to his son at the airport, he is riven with remorse. His son is about to fly back to his alcoholic and troubled mother in Chicago while his father and his beautiful family live a disconnected ocean away in Paris.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesse is torn up inside, so much so that he even entertains thoughts of trying to convince Celine to move the family to Chicago so they can all be close to the teenage boy they all – all – love so dearly.
But then Celine has a question of her own: What if she took a job with her old boss in Paris, a job which she describes to Jesse as the job of a lifetime?
Given the utter incompatibility of the secret desires of these two, it is remarkable that the conflict that we see unfold in close to “real time” in this film is as civilized and well-behaved as it is.
The point here is talk, talk, talk. Talk is how these people met and fell in love. Talk is how they inch their way into this terrible conflict of deep feelings that has shown up in the deepest layer of their relationship.
Talk is what Jesse and Celine do – with exceptional wit and intelligence and articulation about their ideas and feelings. And it’s what we listen to throughout these Richard Linklater films with enormous pleasure, whatever the emotional subtext.
Right about here, it has to be admitted that no movie as wall-to-wall with talk – and with so many walk-and-talk scenes filmed in astonishingly long single takes – would rivet your attentions equally with every single word. Jesse and Celine and their friends are intellectuals. Jesse is a novelist who writes mostly about his love affair with his wife. Celine is an environmental activist. Their talk is full of life stories, fragments of wisdom and stupidity both, jokes, and silliness for entertainment’s sake over shared meals. Not every word is made of gold.
But what this movie forces you to see is that underneath every one of those copiously flowing words, there is an extremely dramatic fissure that has developed between the two lead characters, whose love and mutual respect couldn’t otherwise be more obvious and more heartening.
To paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” this is how relationships end – sometimes. Not with a dramatic bang, but with a whimper of feelings that can simply no longer be reconciled.
Underneath, then, this impossibly beautiful Greek landscape and these two enormously attractive people, something terrible is threatening. And so much basic stuff – love of children, a search for self-respect – is involved that it’s going to be very rocky indeed.
That’s the movie. And it is sometimes wickedly funny. These are people to whom sarcasm is one of the basic forms of speech. Their verbal facility is probably the most obvious thing they love about each other. It’s also the thing that can get them into trouble so easily.
If you’ve ever seen other films by Linklater – most notably “Waking Life” – you know how intellectually lively his films are. But then if you’ve seen “Dazed and Confused,” you know how many life problems his films can bring you.
It’s Jesse and Celine, these amazing people that Linklater has now presented to us over three films.
They never cease to surprise us. It even happens here when they are alone and begin to take off their clothes to make love and we think all will be well. It’s then that feelings persist in coming out and lead to the worst of all things being said.
The year’s best film by far.
Starring: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
Director: Richard Linklater
Running time: 109 minutes
Rating: R for nudity, sexual content and profanity.
The Lowdown: We’re now watching the troubled relationship of a brilliant couple that met 18 years and two films before this as single people on a train to Vienna.