By Joan Ellis
Eighteen years ago Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke starred in Before Sunrise, the first of a film trilogy that followed a young couple who had the freedom to say “Let’s get off the train and fall in love tonight in Vienna.”
I wrote then that it would be great fun to see them meet again in a couple of decades when they have some life experience. Well here they are. Acting once again under the subtle touch of writer/ director Richard Linklater who co-wrote the script with Delpy, they have planted Before Midnight near the top of anyone’s list of best movies of this year.
After nearly two decades, Jesse (Hawke) has a teenage son, an angry ex-wife and twin daughters with Celine (Delpy). In a moving opening scene, Jesse is putting Henry on a plane to return to his mother in Chicago after a summer visit in Greece where he and Celine have spent an idyllic six weeks with their children in the guest cottage of a marvelous Greek family.
Linklater knows that given superior writing and acting, one long conversational ramble can sustain an entire film. He laces the running talk with the cultural changes of 18 years along with a strong grasp of the resentments and tripping points that build in longtime couples.
That conversation unfurls as the two walk and drive through the beautiful Greek countryside. In a midpoint shift, three generations of the host family sit with Celine and Jesse at the dinner table and roam over questions of life and love with humor and acceptance. Their provocative conclusion is that friendship and love of life matter far more than romantic love. The extraordinary authenticity of this memorable scene springs from the talent and warmth of a group of amazing Greek actors.
On their last night in Greece, Jesse and Celine have been given by their hosts a romantic getaway at a hotel. On their lovely long walk to that evening, their world seems perfect. The private time is interrupted harshly by a cellphone call from Jesse’s son that raises Jesse’s guilt about missing his son’s high school years. The spell is broken.
The question of whether they might move back to Chicago triggers a superbly intricate and prolonged argument that touches all the trouble spots in their partnership. While there is no genuine cruelty in Celine’s attack or Jesse’s defense, real anger pours forth in a cascade of buried resentments. A collective groan of appreciation rolls through the audience when Celine roars, “I take care of myself and everyone else – women explore forever in the garden of sacrifice!”
Delpy is especially grand when she’s bitter. She stands front and center in this long fight, surely one of the best ever filmed.
Delpy, Hawke and Linklater have become a team rooted in mutual trust and daring. They explore and explode, always unpredictably. They are master storytellers, and theirs is the work of artists.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.