Monday, November 3, 2014

Before Midnight

Here's a trilogy I was quite ready to see come to an end, and had little desire to see its conclusion. After 2004's BEFORE SUNSET, the follow up to 1995's BEFORE SUNRISE, I was deflated by the film's seeming celebration of Generation X narcissism. I posted a mini review (back before I started composing these bloated ones) here back in 2007:

I just finished watching Before Sunset, the perhaps long-overdue follow-up to 1995's Before Sunrise. Director Richard Linklater and his actors, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy, all return to allow us to again peek into the lives of two cynical romantics who spend the films' running times pontificating ad nauseam while they traverse European cities with pretty scenery. In the earlier film, Hawke played a tourist who strikes up a conversation with an attractive French girl. They spend the evening yakking to each other in cafes and through alleyways and cemeteries. It was an enjoyable, romantic picture.

This time, the characters have grown older and again get to spend some time theorizing on why love just really sucks (but life without it is unthinkable). The journey this time is again pleasant, but I was struck at how immature both characters seemed. For all their supposed growth, they seemed awfully self-obsessed and shallow. Sure, they write and participate in political rallies and travel, but their emotional development seemed regressive, possibly even less developed than before. They whine about how life has disappointed them. Articulately, I might add. It is a pleasure to hear intelligent discourse in films for a change. But, the lack of responsibility Hawke's character displays left me cold, rendering the supposed happy ending a bit hollow. His narcissism is laid bare, and damn his wife and kid back home--HE'S NOT FULFILLED!

Maybe I'm just older and see through the slacker/Gen-X arrested development BS quite a bit more clearly now. I was there. The self-absorption bit is destructive, and (rightly) tries the patience of all who are infected by such behavior. Maybe the point (at least in part) was to draw these characters as such (the 3 principals wrote the screenplay). That does not make it easier to root for their courtship, however. Still, Linklater and his collaborators have fashioned another trip worth taking. Insightful, laden with eye pleasing vistas, and occasionally inspiring, Before Sunset is a document of a generation. Perhaps the film's most effective, if certainly unintentional, impression is the strong argument it makes for the use of SSRIs.

I was pretty much alone in my opinion on the second installment, but as someone once quipped, "Pharoah's heart is hard", invisible audience; I was and am unrepentant on my feelings. So why would I bother with Part Three? I didn't, for awhile. But I respect the actors and director Rick Linklater and recognize the talent behind these films, these dizzyingly verbose experiments. I was again expecting the pleasures of hearing real dialogue, exchanges with some substance. But I was dreading what I considered inevitable pretension. Sometimes intelligent discourse is nonetheless embarrassing and self-serving. All three BEFORE movies are guilty of this. But that's who these characters are, and I admire that the creative trio never whitewashes this.

It's nearly a decade later and Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) have now long been a couple. They have twin girls. BEFORE MIDNIGHT opens as Jesse sees his teenage son (from his failed marriage) off at the airport after a summer vacation in Greece. Jesse has lived in France since we last saw him and greatly misses the boy. His guilt riddles him near incapacitated, enough to suggest to his wife that perhaps they could move back to the States. She is not fond of this idea for the reasons many Europeans would inevitably cite. "I don't want to find myself buying peanut butter in Chicago," she sighs during one of several arguments.

And BEFORE MIDNIGHT spends a majority of its time documenting the fallout, the latter day bitterness that would likewise be inevitable. This is not the romantic, dewy eyed waltz through ancient plazas like the earlier films. Jesse and Celine are now hardened individuals. I hesitate to say "adults" because they still act like petulant brats. I wanted to heave rotten vegetables at them several times. But they're acting like many people their age do in these days. Sometimes I wonder if there are any adults under the age of 50 anymore. Generation X and following have produced gaggles of  self-obsessed, ironic T-shirt wearing children.

This is very apparent in the scene around a dinner table, where a few generations of couples share their views on relationships. A wistful elderly woman describes her feelings and memories of her late husband, how he is sometimes seen clearly, then fading when the reality of her current life crashes in. By contrast, the younger characters offer paper thin, sometimes embarrassingly narcissistic commentary on their own damaged unions.

My patience was waning with BEFORE MIDNIGHT, but then came the final act - the lengthy hotel room battle between the two principals. An uncomfortably real, beautifully acted sequence which offers real insight on the complexities of relationships. The dialogue is scaldingly realistic.  It is not fun to watch, and if you're with your significant other you may find yourself wanting to slink out of the room, but it really encapsules the dynamic, the arc of this union. It makes all of the pretension from earlier worth the slog.

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