63rd Berlinale Review: “Before Midnight” by Richard Linklater

If “Before Sunrise” made us fall in love with a fantasy and “Before Sunset” made us discover the possibility of true love, “Before Midnight” is here to ground us. Reality is harsh, almost brutal, but no less capable of inspiring a whirlwind of emotion.

At 23 they got off a train in Vienna and spent the night walking, talking and laughing. Building the plot word by word, smile by smile, Richard Linklater showed us how young love can scar you for life. A 32-year-old Jesse, married with a kid, visited Paris, on a book tour. A book he’d written about that first encounter. Celine met up with him, believing that everything between them belonged in the past and that’s exactly where it was meant to stay. And so did we. But it only took one afternoon and a walk around the city to make cynics out of all of us. True love knows nothing about the passage of time. You need to grab it where you can get it, even if it means missing your flight.

Nine years down the line, Jesse and Celine are still together. They never got married, but that only bugs their twin 5-year-old daughters. They’ve taken their own vows and have little regard for conventions. They’re well aware of the sacrifices they’ve had to make for their relationship to work, and now it’s time for us to find out.

After a 6-week vacation in Greece, Jesse must put his son on a return flight to the States. He must make peace with the fact he won’t be seeing him again any time soon and will probably miss out on important parts of his teenage years. He’s become a part-time dad, the kind you only get to see on holidays. His son is the victim of Jesse and Celine’s enduring love. It didn’t all end when the sun went down. On the contrary, their life together had just begun. Now Celine is considering a job offer with long hours and many responsibilities that will boost her confidence but disrupt their family life. Discussing the possibility, the alarms start to go off. Those deadly insecurities that shake your faith in your relationship and the path you’ve chosen to follow in your life. Demons are awakened and you start wondering whether your partner is in fact oppressing you or, worse yet, is feeling oppressed.

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From that moment on, Jesse and Celine have a lot of walking to do. They have to melt the soles on their shoes on the cobblestone streets of Pylos and Kardamyli, wondering whether falling in love is the ultimate dream come true or that’s just what they tell you in the movies. They will start blaming each other, exchanging bitter accusations fuelled by frustration and painful truths and will have to dig deep under their wrinkles to discover what made them stay together. If there’s even an iota of feeling still alive, maybe it’ll all have been worth it. When the clock strikes midnight, we will find out whether love is nothing but a big pumpkin or fairy tales can still come true.

Richard Linklater has a similar bet to win. Same as his characters, he has chosen to stay the distance and revisit their relationship for a third time, hoping to prove some of that old magic is still alive. The possibility the spark was gone for good must have been terrifying. This film was one hell of a risk to take.

His talent to inspire and document naturalism through long and well-thought out sequences (think extensive rehearsals and a lot of improv) and his ability to trust his actors and the chemistry between them, was all he had to work with. Recruiting his old acquaintances to co-write the story, the decision was clear: no clichés, no compromises, no sugar-coating the pill. This is real life, or the closest thing to it. From the very first scene, where Jesse and Celine share a few moments of family intimacy in the car (so natural, they’ll make you smile in recognition), to their long walks around the countryside and the big fight in the hotel room, “Before Midnight” is so well-written it’s almost embarrassing. Are you really watching a movie or peeping through the keyhole?

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The choice to film in Greece could have been inconsequential. The story would still be the same if they’d gotten lost in the streets of Rome or fought in a Barcelona hotel, or even watched the sun go down in Bristol. But the difference between a touristy film and a deep-rooted concept with reason d’etre, is that Linklater overcomes the usual Greek clichés – women cooking stuffed tomatoes, byzantine churches and a group of friends eating grapes and feta cheese – by focusing on love and relationships. You can almost feel his need to comprehend a culture that has survived throughout the ages, without making the slightest hint. Images of families sharing a meal or couples who’ve grown old together speak volumes without having to say a single word.

We’d still fall in love with this movie, even if the supporting cast didn’t feature Athina Rachel Tsangari (“Attenberg”), Yannis Papadopoulos (“Boy Eating the Bird’s Food”), Ariane Labed (“Alps”) and Xenia Kalogeropoulou. Even if we didn’t recognize the squares, the taverns, the narrow streets and the sandy beaches. The movie would still ring true even if we hadn’t seen the first two, even if it wasn’t part of an unscheduled trilogy that was born out of the need of the people who made it and the people who watched it throughout the years.

The fact that you’ve had the pleasure of watching your favorite love story come of age at the exact same time you did, is just the icing on the cake. Just like those songs you used to think were written just for you. And, truth be told, it doesn’t get much better than that.