Thursday, February 20, 2014

Linklater Deepens Cinema’s Greatest Romance With Trilogy-Capping “Before Midnight”

After showcasing Vienna and Paris in the first two films, Before
takes place in Greece.
Every movie fan has more than a few films that their embarrassed to say they haven’t actually seen. For some reason, even though we all manage to catch up with our fair share of obvious duds like Baby Geniuses or Boat Trip, a multitude of true classics always fall through the cracks.

Despite my love for cinema and the crazy amount of time I spend on it, my list is still quite extensive. It’s probably no surprise that I haven’t seen many of the foreign classics by the likes of Godard, Traffaut, Bergman, and Fellini, but there are plenty of American films I’ve missed as well. For instance, although I’m a huge fan of the Godfather and have seen it about a dozen times, I’ve never actually seen Godfather, Part II. Meanwhile, it was only a few months ago that I finally caught up with The Silence of the Lambs, and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve yet to watch Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Schindler’s List, Vertigo, and Lawrence of Arabia, among many other legendary films.

I try not to beat myself up over this, because, for whatever reason, there’s just so much more effort involved when you know you’re sitting down to watch a classic. Sometimes it’s just simpler to watch something of-the-moment, even mediocre drivel. Is We’re The Millers better than The Big Sleep? Most assuredly no, and yet I still spent two hours of my weekend watching Sudeikis and Aniston in lieu of Bogart and Bacall. It’s just the way things are.

I bring all this up as a preamble to my reaction to Before Midnight, which is the third in writer/director Richard Linklater’s series of talky films focused on soul mates Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Up until a few weeks ago, I’d never seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the first two films in the trilogy. I was aware they existed and knew of the good buzz around them, and yet, I never went out of my way to seek them out. After all, how vital could two movies about star-crossed lovers bullshitting with each other during strolls through European locales possibly be?

After reading the raves for Midnight, I decided it was time to prioritize watching the first two films so that I could sit down for the third. Now, after having digested all three films, I’m fully confident that this trilogy belongs on the embarrassment list of any movie fan that has yet to see them. What Linklater and his actors (both of whom co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplays for the latter two entries) have accomplished with these films is outright mindboggling. Each one is great on its own, but as a whole, the trilogy places among the greatest cinematic triumphs I've ever seen.

Jesse and Celine are a long way from the idealized encounters they
shared in Before Sunrise (left) and Before Sunset (right).
For good reason, much of the emphasis on these films will be put on the romantic element and that makes sense. This is dubbed as one of the best romances in cinema history and with good reason – through three films Linklater has detailed the ongoing process that is love. Without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that Sunrise offers a dreamy evening between would-be lovers in Vienna, Sunset rekindles the passion after nine years apart, and Midnight catches up with the duo nine years later , during a critical juncture of what has become a long-term relationship.

There’s a universality to the whole journey – the idealism of a fresh connection, the realization that it wasn’t a fluke, that the love really was palpable and unique, and then, finally, the realism that sets in once you’re waist deep in a relationships, trying to keep love alive while maintaining your personal identity, making compromises and getting on one another’s nerves.

But these films detail not only the arc of a relationship, but the growth in these two people, and there’s something entirely relatable about the way the creative team so expertly captures the contradictions of the life stages in these three snapshots of life.

In his widely accepted Stages of Psychosocial Development, psychologist Erik Erikson* describes the psychosocial crisis for young adults (18 to 40) as love vs. intimacy, and the first two films fall in line with his teachings. There is a giddiness to the first film that echoes what it’s like being in your late teens and early 20s, a time when you’re fearless and exuberant but somehow simultaneously filled with all sorts of doubt. And the second highlights the mounting confidence that comes along midway through young adulthood that consistently clashes with a sort of restless desperation for things to finally come together.

*I’m not trying to be overly clinical here, but it’s very hard not to mention Erikson, especially considering Boyhood, Linklater’s latest film. Shot over the course of 12 years with the same four actors (Hawke included), the film is a literal coming of age story that chronicles the development of a boy from age 6 to 18. Clearly Linklater has a great interest in development and the passage of time, and it’s hard to imagine he hasn’t considered Erikson’s theory himself given that and how the theory perfectly dovetails with what he’s done in this series. If I ever were to get a chance to speak with the guy, you can bet I’d be sure to ask him about it.

Unlike the previous two entries in the series, Before Midnight features several other significant characters.

In Midnight, Jesse and Celine are no longer spring chickens. Erickson would place them firmly in adulthood (40 to 65), a time in which people begin wrestling with the psychosocial crisis of generativity vs. stagnation. It’s a time for people to focus on making a lasting mark in the world, and so, rightly, we find Jesse and Celine dealing with fears related to child rearing and career choices.

Overall, I think I like Sunset the best, mostly because it’s filmed in real-time, which lends immediacy to Jesse and Celine’s race to determine if this connection they’ve long idealized is a love worth changing their lives over. But all three films are absolutely fantastic in the way they capture the contradictions of life and love.

To focus specifically solely on the newest film, I greatly enjoy the ways in which it differentiates itself from its predecessors. Through the end of the second film, we had seen every moment shared between these two people, but now there’s nine years of added history – tender moments and strained concessions we haven’t witnessed – and that adds an extra weight to the proceedings.

Yes, Midnight ultimately focuses on a long and winding conversation in yet another European destination, but Linklater also opens up the narrative in the early going, including a revealing interaction between Jesse and his son from a previous relationship, as well as an extended dinner party sequence during which Jesse and Celine banter with several other couples. These two are no longer the sole voices on display, which is a clever way of indicating the mounting external factors these two are coping with now that fantasy has been replaced by reality. Things get darker in this third outing as the duo begins to feel boxed in by circumstance, and the narrative goes in some deeper and more complicated directions as a result.

Before closing, I have to mention that one of the very best things about these films is how wonderfully each one ends. All of them go out on satisfyingly poignant notes while somehow still leaving things provocatively unresolved. I’m not sure if Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have the desire to keep returning to Jesse and Celine every nine years, but further entries would be more than welcome if they remain anywhere near as thought-provoking and engrossing as the first three have been. A