“Before Midnight” and the New Romantic Role Model

For those who complain that Hollywood burdens us with an unrealistic view of love, we now have an antidote in Before Midnight, perhaps the first anti-romantic comedy. Whereas most romantic movies end at the first kiss, this film shows us what happens after the fantasy ends and reality begins. By design, it is less enjoyable that the first two entries in the series – 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset – but it remains painfully true to its characters and provides role models for an entire generation of Americans who have been raised by the media and may have no idea what a strong, lasting relationship actually looks like.

It’s impossible for me to be objective about Before Midnight, so I’m not even going to try to. I grew up with these characters. At 15, I related to the idealized notion of love in Sunrise, represented by this young American man (Ethan Hawke) and beautiful French woman (Julie Delpy) who meet on a train then spend the day together in Vienna, walking, talking, and falling in love.  At 24, and with a couple of failed relationships behind me, I sympathized with the same characters in Sunset who existed somewhere between hope and resignation. Just like the characters in that film, who found each other again nine years after that initial encounter, I was struggling to understand the logistics of love in the real world.

I saw Before Midnight with my wife just four days before our third anniversary. While my marriage has had its strained moments, it has never reached the crisis point in which Jesse and Celine find themselves in this film. Here is the recap: Jesse and Celine are now in a committed relationship, although their old lives are creeping back in. Jesse wants to move to America to be closer to his teenage son (from a previous marriage), while Celine has been offered a great government job in Paris. They are spending their summer among the ruins of the southern Peloponnese, and the setting acts as metaphor: Jesse and Celine are halfway through their lives, and death – once a fantasy perhaps as deep as love – has become more real. That pervasive sense of transience has morphed into a mutual uncertainty over their relationship, and the two lovebirds spend much of the film dancing around their problems before they explode in one long, bitter, painful fight.

Ethan Hawke

At first glance, Before Midnight feels like a break from the prior two films. For starters, it’s not just Jesse and Celine anymore, wandering the city streets like the only two sane people in the world. The children, friends, and relatives that surround them underscores their dissatisfaction: their lives are not their own anymore. They long to be alone and flirt like they did in the old days, and we also unconsciously yearn to see them that way. It makes for an often bittersweet viewing experience.

But the franchise actually follows a natural progression. If Sunrise revolved entirely around an idealized notion of love, and Sunset found its characters searching for the reality amidst several competing fantasies, reality has overtaken the characters in Midnight. It makes for a profound film that fills an important void in the landscape of romantic American cinema, but it does come with a downside. Those who go into Before Midnight expecting to be filled with warm and fuzzies may leave the theater with a sour taste in their mouth. The easy answers found in commercial films are completely absent here, and while the final note of the film offers less short-term ambiguity than the previous films’ famously open-ended finales, the long-term forecast for Jesse and Celine remains perpetually foggy.

And that’s how it must be. If we long for certitude, the Before series tells us where to find it: in the past. The present is full of difficult choices and love that becomes more painful as time goes on. “This is real love,” Jesse tells Celine, tacitly imploring her to accept it as the best that can be achieved in reality. That message reaches through the screen to touch an audience that is often deprived of role models for a real world, and that alone makes Before Midnight an invaluable contribution to the canon of American film. It is another stellar entry in a film franchise that celebrates love – real love – in all its stages.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

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