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There is a defining moment in “Before Midnight” when the central characters – Celine and Jesse – are seated at a café watching the late-afternoon sun drop down over the mountains. “Still there,” Celine observes. “Still there. Still there. Gone.”
That is the feeling viewers get watching this movie capture and consider the evanescent moments of life and love before they slip away.
“Before Midnight” is director Richard Linklater’s latest installment in the on-going saga of the intercontinental couple – she is French, he is American – who first meet on a train and spend the night strolling through Vienna talking about their lives in the delightful 1995 movie “Before Sunrise.” Nine years later the actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprised their roles, this time in Paris, in “Before Sunset.” In both cases they have just a few hours together before prior commitments are scheduled to pull them apart, perhaps forever, producing a tension that lends immediacy and weight to the stories.
In “Before Midnight” another nine years have passed. Jesse and Celine are no longer young romantic souls trysting the night away but a middle-aged couple with twin daughters and family responsibilities. They are vacationing in southern Greece and still discoursing on life and romance, principally on the differences between men and women and the great game of love. Their conversations bounce from topic to topic, but always come back to a central question: Can love at 40 be as exciting and meaningful as it was at 20 or 30? If that sounds pedantic or pedestrian, it is anything but. The movie crackles with wit, thoughtfulness and passion, and the Peloponnese provides a spare but beautiful backdrop.
Both characters are struggling through their own midlife crisis. Jesse is a successful novelist who is deeply upset at not being with his adolescent son from an earlier marriage. Celine seems equivocal about motherhood and torn about taking a new job, a move that Jesse initially opposes. Emotions boil over and threaten to derail their domestic routine.
As with the earlier movies, “Before Midnight” follows the couple moment-by-moment, sometimes in long one-take scenes of bravura filmmaking. The dialogue, which the actors co-wrote with Mr. Linklater, is as freewheeling and penetrating as an Alice Munro short story, and the themes of mortality and romance prove endlessly resonant. The movie unspools like a play, with a dramatic arc that culminates in a half-hour bedroom scene of painful intensity. Film message boards are rife with speculation on whether the Jesse-Celine relationship survives.
Perhaps there will be a fourth movie to resolve the issue; Mr. Linklater has not ruled it out. In the meantime “Before Midnight” along with the first two movies comprise one of the most fascinating trilogies about life and love in recent cinema.