Thursday, June 13, 2013

Before Midnight: Emotional Celine and Rational Jessie

I had no plans to review Before Midnight because director, Richard Linklater had made its forerunners such exemplary examples of male and female complexity, individuality and equality that I thought there would be nothing to say. It would have been already said about Before Sunrise in 1995 and Before Sunset in 2004.

And then comes Before Midnight and – wham! – we are shot back in time to 1970, maybe even to I Love Lucy. Yes I know I Love Lucy was funny, but it was based on a certain prejudiced idea of men and women that's totally false and dates it back to its time.

The first two-thirds of Before Midnight are fine. Celine and Jessie, who we met on the first magical night of their meeting in Before Sunrise, and who went on to acknowledge their special love and connection in Before Sunset have now been married for 9 years and have kids in Before Midnight. Granted that the giddy hopefulness of two movies where the principles are falling in love, as we want them to, is not quite the same as the hard work of staying in love after being married. Things were rosy in the first two films, things had to be practical and less romantic after 9 years of marriage. That’s fine. The problem was how that practical, less romantic reality was handled.

In Before Midnight Celine and Jessie are just as verbose as they were in the first two films. They seem perfectly matched emotionally and intellectually and can voice their perspectives in a language that both of them and their audience understand. Linklater’s genius lies in being able to make movies that hinge mostly on dialogue but still maintain all the excitement and attention of more action-based films. He zeroes in on the power of language and thought and uses these skillfully to provide us with the necessary tension that a film demands. He knows how to express emotion and tension through intelligent discourse. Celine and Jessie also put voice to what the audience has thought in such situations but has not necessarily voiced. Ergo, rapport.

Finding such perfectly matched actors in Julie Velpy as Celine and Ethan Hawke as Jessie was also an act of Linklater’s genius. They are so well suited to the dialogue and to their roles it’s hard to think of them as acting. They communicate the way people who really know each other well communicate.
So where does Before Midnight stumble? To make them a quarrelsome, long-married couple who’ve learned a thing or two about each other since we last saw them, their wonderful understanding and communication had to be broken. So, in the last act they get into one big mother of a fight. Okay, that’s natural. The descent of romantic love into married love is natural. It’s a hard landing for a lot of us. But this was done by falling into the cliché of how men and women have been portrayed in movies. It dates back to the time when only the men were influencing the production.

The couple and their 3 children (their own twin girls and Jessie’s son from his first marriage) are in Greece having a wonderful vacation. Greece still looks glorious even if financially it is going to hell. Jessie’s son must return to Chicago to live with his mother and Jessie goes into a deep crisis because he, Celine, and their twins live in France. The son is 14 and Jessie wants to be closer to him so that he can be more of a hands-on father than the present distance allows. Celine immediately jumps to the conclusion that Jessie will want to move to Chicago, which she does not want to do. That’s okay so far. Par for the course with today’s complicated relationships. But instead of understanding Jessie’s dilemma and trying to come up with a solution that they both could live with Celine disappears into PMS, pre-menopause mode – or whatever men think those term means.
All her insecurities blast out. She’s afraid she’s getting old and fat, she thinks Jessie is on the verge of leaving her, she's an overworked, under appreciated housewife and domestic slave, Jessie has a life, she has nothing, he is plotting to turn her into a submissive drudge. Anything Jessie says to calm her down and reassure her is twisted into attacks on her so that nothing he says is right. It’s then up to Jessie to remain sane and stable. Jessie projects such pure adoration and obvious respect for her intellect and input into the relationship that we instantly know she's wrong. This is a man who actually listens to what his girlfriend/wife has to say – all the time.

Her assault is so unbelievable that twice he tells her that she is totally crazy – “You’re the Mayor of Crazytown!” - and we believe him, although there was no evidence of this in the other 2 movies. What's worse Celine's attitude disparages women who actually do have these problems. If she can be so totally wrong in assessing her relationship with Jessie, this must be something all women say just to annoy a guy.

I can see where the two might get into a fight, but while Jessie gets all the focused, rational arguments with a few zingers of truth in his attacks, Celine comes off as a blubbering, irrational, emotional, self-centered, egotistical idiot and neurotic woman who can’t realize with a good husband she has. She makes mountains out of molehills and brings up things from years past that have nothing to do with anything that’s happening now. Jessie's son calls her twice. She takes the calls but does not hand them over to Jessie who is begging her to give him the phone. Why? She seems not to notice, or not to care how important it is for Jessie to talk to his son.

At one point she yells “I don’t love you anymore” and stomps out. She expects an exclamation like this to be accepted even though if Jessie had said anything close to that he would never have been forgiven. Thank goodness that the husband, who she cuts down like a dog, has the strength of mind and heart to finally land the right set of compliments that calm her down. Isn’t that how all the comedians and men in sitcoms and romantic comedies survive life with women? Don’t they always have to be the strong ones who sacrifice their pride – because when it comes to arguments women are never wrong, you know?

Watching this film it’s hard to imagine Celine and Jessie ever having sex. While her insightful and analytical mind was so refreshing to hear in the first 2 movies, she doesn’t seem to be able to turn it off in bed. She has to interrupt romantic moments to discuss and analyze every feeling, and suspect every move.

My friend (who did not see the first 2 movies) said, “I didn’t realize she was such a bitch,” assuming she must have been like this in the other movies too.

I was hoping to see a wiser depiction of marital conflict. A wordsmith like Linklater (with help from Delpy and Hawke) should have come up with dialogue that more equally balanced the fears and disappoints marriage can bring. Things simmered down in the end somewhat artificially but, given Celine’s paranoia and that nothing was settled, there is no reason they will not flare up again. You know what it’s like trying to reason with a woman!

Before Midnight still has a lot of the old magic to it, but in dealing with Celine's anger it is just not fair.


Links: Before Midnight movie trailerVideo interview with Richard Linklater, Julie Velpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise movie trailerBefore Sunset movie trailer.


  1. By the end, Before Midnight inches towards a dawn of charm. But it's a troubled trip.

  2. Hmm. An interesting comment from the Best Seattle Divorce Attorney (alas, I don't need one). I guess you would be the best one to know the outcome of this marriage. :D