Did you want to learn that Jesse and Celine, the couple we fell in love with as they fell in love with each other in the Richard Linklater films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, have become cantankerous, unhappy middle-aged jerks? That their love has curdled into passive-aggressive routine and barely disguised resentment? That the openness they showed each other during their courtship—the very basis of the first two films—will be something they use against each other during merciless scenes of verbal battle? I ask you these questions, sincerely, and in all seriousness. The third film in this series, Before Midnight, opens in select theaters this Friday, and it is extraordinary and incisive and true down to its very marrow. I wish it didn't exist.
I should probably give you a spoiler alert you here, in case you don't want to know what has happened to Jesse and Celine in the nine years since we last saw them, Celine dancing to Nina Simone, Jesse knowing he's going to miss his flight and not caring. So if you don't want to know, stop right here. All right, so as it turns out, Jesse really did stay in Paris and, in fact, left his wife back in the United States to start a new life with Celine. Yay, right? You guys, they finally did it! Well, Before Midnight is largely devoted to what comes after true love, after a big romantic gesture in the name of human connection ends, once the white-hot passion that had been denied for so long fades and reality forces its way in.
We see Jesse and Celine with their button-cute twin girls, driving through the Greece countryside, as compatible as ever—no matter what happens with those two, they'll always be able to talk—but getting bogged down in all the junk that the world throws at you when you're a parent in your 40s. They complain about Jesse's ex-wife—who, understandably, now despises the two of them—and about their jobs and about the sacrifices each of them have had to make and about how much Jesse would love to be closer to the son he left behind in the United States. (The idealist Jesse from Before Sunrise would be aghast at the divorced, cranky, indulgent fortysomething he has become, and he knows it.) There is still love between the two, no question, but there's also real bitterness, and a vague sense from each of them that by throwing all caution to the wind and deciding to be with each other, the rest of the world be damned, they have lost much of themselves, and what they once deeply cared about.
This culminates in a surprisingly intense, quite brutal fight scene between the two of them in a Greek resort hotel that is funny, scary, moving, and, I gotta admit, pretty depressing. It is jarring to see these two people we've come to care for over three films just tear at each other's throats, wailing on each other, in large part using emotional cudgels established in the first two films as warm, relatable personal details. Celine thinks Jesse uses his impulsiveness and romanticism as ways to nudge situations to his own advantage—to always get his own way, with little individual sacrifice—and Jesse believes Celine doesn't appreciate all he gave up to be with her and openly resents her for it. They hammer each other, for basically the last half hour of the film, relentlessly, to the point that you'll find yourself wanting to look away.
The scene is massive, devastating, and completely exhausting, and is absolutely true to the way that marriage can sometimes feel like a war between two people who desperately want to defeat the other person in a battle they don't even realize they're having. This is what happens after true love, the movie is saying, and I do not doubt that it is true. I am just not sure I want to learn this lesson from Jesse and Celine, one of the most romantic film couples of the last few decades. The first two films are almost painfully pure-hearted, aching and hopeful while still being grounded in real places with real people. (I love how, in the second film, in the middle of the Iraq disaster, Celine sort of hates Jesse because he's an American, and he keeps calling her a Commie.) We saw a lot of ourselves in these two characters—probably more than we should have—and it's probably true that, generationally, we see a lot more of ourselves in them now, as they're unhappily stumbling toward middle age.
Which is why seeing them unhappy is painful, even if it feels true. (It doesn't help that Hawke and Delpy, both so great, are looking so grizzled and haggard, respectively. They're both still gorgeous movie stars, but they both also look so tired.) The film is as open and honest as the first two films, but now in a darker, more upsetting way, idealism replaced with harsh reality. There's a coda after the big hotel fight that lets us know there might be a little hope for these two, that in seven years (when we'll probably get another movie), there will be another chapter to the story. Maybe this is just a tough phase for them, one we all go through. But seeing these two, who spoke so lovingly to each other for two films, spit at each other here is sometimes too much for this old '90s-nostalgia-obsessive romantic to bear. Before Midnight, like the first two films, reflects the real world in a way that seems almost preternatural. It's just that, here, the real world is a harsher, more disappointing place. This makes for a stronger, more unsparing, extremely powerful film. It lets you know how these characters turned out in a truthful, realistic way. It's just, well ... I'm just not sure I wanted to see it. Now that I know, I kinda wish I didn't.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.