Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: "Before Midnight" Brings a Romance of 18 Years to a Beautiful, Insightful End

Left to right: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy 
It seems improbable that a trilogy as calculated as the Before series would work in the grand scheme. Unlike most trilogies, director Richard Linklater's portrayal of lovers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) calculates the progression of a relationship in what feels like real time. The actors have aged, and so have the characters and their thought processes and beliefs. The move to set each installment in the series nine years apart almost seems ingenious in this regard, especially with almost every film series impatiently green lighting another installment for next year. However, with Before Midnight, Linklater has done something profound for cinema. He has painted a poignant, deeply detailed analysis of romance and what it means as your priorities change.

When we last left Jesse and Celine in Before Sunset, they hadn't seen each other in nine years and Jesse was eager to spice up the romance again. The film ended on a cliffhanger, waiting to see if Jesse would leave Celine's company for business. It was a ravishing sequel in all regards, showing how important 24 hours could be in a couple's life, even if it took some creative seduction to bring them back together. As Before Midnight begins, we discover that they did stay together, started a family, and on a car ride in Greece, discovered the very essence of their incompatibility. What was there when they were only together for a day has been tarnished by lives they built around their jaded optimism.

Where Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were prominently conversations between two individuals, the third one introduces more layers. They have families and bitter relationships with other people. They frankly discuss sex and creativity. In one scene that feels like a meta commentary on the Before series and Jesse's stance on romance in general, he talks to neighbors in his little Greek cottage about how lives intertwine at an Elia Kazan retrospective. It recalls Jesse's first moments in Before Sunrise that sets everything into place and the catalyst for the film. Celine doesn't believe that their chemistry is there anymore and due to Jesse's exploitative nature as a writer, is not kind to him using him as her muse anymore.

While the story progresses into the familiar one-on-one conversation, it is those moments where we understand who they are outside of those earlier films. There doesn't feel like a bias and instead a sense of joy and freedom that doesn't reflect their personal relationship. With one of the main points being a debate on their relationship in 45 years, they are no longer looking to the past, and instead the future. Celine worries about her aging appearance and being accepted by her peers. Jesse seems more carefree, and even that is a problem to her. With children in the mix, it is impossible for them to feel responsible without keeping the kids out of it. It creates a conundrum that tests their love and essentially reveals who they really are.

Before Midnight's success is in the small moments. In the first act's car ride, information is presented casually and time drags on before we get any sense that something is wrong. The conversation naturally turns sour with a few offhand remarks. There is no fancy editing nor a chance to pull away, except to admire the scenery of Greece. It creates the complex romance between the two which was pure when they held little responsibilities. Now that they lives together, things were different. As they point out in one conversation, they haven't just had a chat about nonsense in forever. This is when they are most open and enthusiastic. In a scene in the third act when Celine interrupts sex to answer a phone call from their kids, things become more dramatic and the philosophical questions regarding aging and attractiveness becomes clear.

While the film is exceptional in showing the final moments of a couple's romance, it becomes more poignant if watched within close proximity to the other two. Unlike most sequels, the relationships build on top of the past movies. There are even callbacks that aren't distracting, but are made more vivid if given context. It creates a nostalgic look on the better days and depending on how well you grasp these characters, their endearment towards each other makes the end of the film all the more tragic. What Linklater has created here with the help of the highly charismatic Hawke and Delpy is an epic that not only explores romance, but how people change. In each film, we get a sense of how characters have matured and what their philosophical beliefs are on mundane issues. They may be mundane, but they help us to better understand who these characters are. It is a lot of talking, and some that may not seem to move the plot forward, but it all comes together thanks to fantastic chemistry.

Before Midnight can almost be perceived as a miracle. With a story beginning 18 years ago, it almost seemed like Linklater's story could be lost due to irrelevance and hipper, hotter products coming out. Instead, it lets the characters and actors mature in ways that only nature can let them. It is an epic that is honest, funny, and very human when addressing its thoughts and flaws. These two characters may not be perfect, but that is what makes their romance so captivating. It started on a whim and managed to salvage the test of time, or at least tried to rather effectively. The Before series is an amazing analysis of aging and what significance comes with it. With the fading sun in the closing scene, things come to a close in the most poignant way possible. Much like Before Sunset, we don't know what happens next, but we do know that once again Linklater has done the unexpected and made a sequel that is just as impressive as his previous film, even if nobody was expecting or wanting it.

In all honesty, I came to the Before series a little late in the game. I saw Before Sunrise and Before Sunset only a few months ago when word began spreading of Before Midnight's brilliance as one of the best movies of the year. I grew more enthused as the story progressed and was bummed out that I barely missed a chance to see the third film in theaters by a few weeks. As established, I was thoroughly impressed with this movie and my enjoyment of spending time with Jesse and Celine is a strong component of it. I cannot yet place it in the ranking of my favorite trilogies (Lord of the Rings, Toy Story, etc.), but so far I am confident that it will rank in my top five.

It is impressive that in 2013 that films of this caliber can be made. It works equal parts as standalone as well as a powerful end to a story that chose to turn love into a thesis and play it out naturally. It works like if Blue Valentine was an epic, and the task was achieved. While I consider it great, it is a tough year to consider it my favorite of the year. Even in terms of independent cinema, it does have to compete with Frances Ha and Stoker, which both captured me on a more visceral and enjoyable level. Still, Before Midnight should stick with you because it is an honest portrayal and I cannot express enough how much of a miracle the trilogy has been. I am just excited to see it end on a high note.

Almost immediately following it, I did have to ask myself where I saw it in the Oscars ranking system. Having done coverage the past few months, I do know that it hasn't been placing high against competitors. Sadly, neither Ethan Hawke nor Julie Delpy are even close to acting consideration. Even according to statistics website Gold Derby, it is shockingly low on making Best Picture at #22 with odds of 100:1. Things could radically change, but with the film opening in the time of skepticism in nominations (May), it has already had a chance to establish itself. While critics have adored it, I find that it has somehow become overlooked. Without going into detail, I do feel like it deserves to be ahead of many of the competitors, but Linklater doesn't necessarily have the clout that his competitors do.

However, there is one category that it seems to be shining in. Much like Before Sunset, Before Midnight is looking to at least walk away with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. According to Gold Derby, it currently sits in third with odds of 6:1, which ties it with The Wolf of Wall Street and puts it behind 12 Years a Slave with odds of 13:8. These are pretty good statistics and if the film deserved one nomination, it would be to the impressively deep and thoughtful script. In fact, until I see 12 Years a Slave (review coming this week), it is my personal pick for Best Adapted Screenplay. There may be more lively and candid scripts, but none feel so truthful and striking.

Before Midnight is a wonderful film and the praise cannot be high enough for it. It currently holds 98% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, which alongside Gravity, is one of the highest rated films of the year. It may lack the flair of its competitors, but don't let that stop you. Even if you haven't seen the Before series, which you should anyways, it shouldn't take away from the depth and complexity to which this story is told. It is very impressive and hopefully will be one of the few surprises when it comes to nominations at this year's Academy Awards.

Can Before Midnight get a nomination for and win Best Adapted Screenplay? Is the early release date what is causing it to not be as big of a presence in the race? What films do you feel deserve less recognition at the Oscars than this one?

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