I first saw Scenes From a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish TV series, at the apartment of a man I’d been considering sleeping with for a while. He’d projected it against a wall painted white expressly for our screening, and we sat through about 45 minutes before he shut it off and turned to me. “This is not sexy,” he said flatly, and we promptly fell upon each other like wild dogs. The affair lasted four months, the precise length of time you can date someone before it deepens into something more serious. I wasn’t surprised. We’d consummated the relationship in the long shadow of a film that denied us any shared illusions about love before experience could do that for us.
Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s third film about the romance of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) (not counting the couple’s cameo in the director’s animated Waking Life), is the first in this series that smacks of Bergman—that Bergman, in particular. That’s a big old blast of relationship reality. And no matter how well-rendered, it isn’t the movie magic we clamor for even when it’s what we need. I’m not convinced we ever do.
Before Sunrise (1995) began as Celine, a French university student, and Jesse, an American wandering on a Eurorail pass, met cute as strangers on a train. After a bit of banter, the two jumped off in Vienna, reveling in their connection as they chattered on prettily cobbled streets. That film took visual and narrative cues from its 20something stars—magnetic and effusively philosophical—and left us to moon about the road that might stretch before them. Would they regret it if they did not reunite a year later? Would they regret it if they did? It was a perfectly earnest romance for a generation that didn’t earnestly care about anything, and I floated in its reverie for months. Somewhat improbably, it also spawned a terrific franchise (a subversion of the term, yes) built upon all that chattiness: Celine and Jesse were such well-developed characters that they could reanimate without stumbling like scary zombies.
Before Sunset (2004) found them leaner and more resigned, the elapsing nine years having stripped them of more than just baby fat. Jesse was now an unhappily married father on his first international book tour; she, a single-ish environmental activist who was disillusioned both professionally and romantically, at least partly because their reunion never took place. After she surprised him at a Parisian reading of his work, the two took a walk and, along the way, slowly, slightly sadly made their way back to each other. Though the two never actually had sex in this film, it’s far sexier than its predecessor. Because they had already been disappointed by love, life, and each other, their chemistry was more informed, more dangerous and, by the transitive property of sexual attraction, more magical. As the film drew to a close, she was singing Nina Simone as Nina Simone, and he was about to miss his plane back to New York. A perfectly earnest romance about a generation that no longer could afford not to earnestly care about something. I cried in grateful recognition that true connection was still possible, even between a film and myself.
Before Midnight is the first in this series that didn’t make me cry. It is also the first that focuses upon a relationship that not only has had time to bloom but to wither on the vine. It opens at a Greek airport as Jesse, now 41, is bidding goodbye to his son about to return home to New York, where he lives with his mother. The teenager is sweetly patient with his distraught father but also removed: a good kid acquainted with his parents’ failings long before he should have been.
Wrecked, Jesse wobbles outside where Celine, jabbering into a cell phone, waves. They climb into their car, and, while their two golden-haired daughters sleep like tiny Celines in the backseat, begin to talk. Since we’ve just witnessed Jesse’s heartbreak, it’s a shock that the conversation begins with Celine telling him about a new job offer. Enter the sometimes brutal, if necessary, indifference required to sustain daily life in a long-term romance. Continue Reading →