The story begins in the 1995 film Before Sunrise. In this film, Hawke’s character Jesse approaches Delpy’s Celine on a train bound for Paris. Using his charm, Jesse convinces Celine to leave the train and spend the day in Vienna with him before he has to fly back to the US the following day. Comprised of long, lingering takes what follows is a smart and intimate film which follows the couple as they converse their way round Vienna.
We next meet Jesse and Celine in 2004’s Before Sunset’ where they run into each other in Paris. It is revealed that the couple never met up in Vienna as they had planned on and have now both moved on with their lives; Jesse has a wife and young son and Celine has a boyfriend and career. This provides the set-up for audience to again join the couple wandering around the European city and picking up where they left off, as Jesse gets ever closer to missing his flight home.
Before Midnight revisits the couple’s storyline almost a decade later as they holiday in Greece with their twin daughters and Hank, Jesse’s son from his previous marriage. In the first scene of this film, we watch as Hank leaves for his flight home which contrasts the previous two films where Jesse’s time with Celine is limited as he must soon catch a flight. In this film, the flight is the start of story which perhaps represents that this time their time together is not threatened by an approaching flight, but by deeper issues.
As the cast and original audience of the Before trilogy age and mature, so do the film’s characters. The 20 something characters of the original film are slightly too naive, overly optimistic and sentimental. In Before Sunset, they have grown to become more sceptical, shrewd and experienced. By Before Midnight, however, the stresses of parenthood and Jesse’s turbulent relationship with his ex-wife and son have made them harder and more pragmatic characters who are less sensitive to each other’s feelings.
One of the most unique and absorbing characteristics of the Before trilogy is the fact that the films are almost entirely comprised of very long scenes often shot from one camera angle with little editing. They are not films of action or of visuals but are films of thought, of words. A friend of mine once remarked, ‘it’s not really a film, it’s a screenplay’ and that is what I think makes the films so engrossing. The audience is allowed to become a silent participant in Jesse and Celine’s conversations; we are able to learn more about them in a 10 minutes’ discussion of their personal philosophies than we could in long period of plot exposition found in more conventional films.
One key moment in Before Midnight really sums up the role this film plays in the trilogy. In this scene, a group of Jesse and Celine’s fellow guests discuss their own various romances and what they think the differences are between men and women. A young couple just starting out in their relationship are clearly meant to represent an earlier version of Jesse and Celine’s relationship. There is an older middle-aged couple who denote a happier version that Jesse and Celine could become in the near-future if they are able to survive the current stage of their relationship. Finally, two older people, both of whom have lost their respective partners, illustrate a future possible Jesse and Celine which is later alluded to again as they imagine what it would be like if they remained together for a further 56 years.
The film culminates in a traumatic argument which is brought out of petty frustrations and eventually ends in Celine telling Jesse she no longer loves him. This is a stage of a relationship that is very rarely portrayed on-screen; it is neither the beginning nor, hopefully, the end of the relationship, it is just a quarrel, another hurdle to overcome. What is important also, is that both of our leading stars are portrayed as being flawed. At times, Celine can come across as mean and bitter, even to a stage which can occasionally make her unlikable, but Jesse also has weaknesses. Instead of dealing with their problems, he prefers to ignore them which is shown in the film’s final scene where he pretends to be a stranger meeting Celeste for the first time to win her back.