Iron Man came out in 2008. The Hangover in 2009. Currently, each franchise is cashing in on a third entry, having churned out inferior sequels as quickly as possible to strike while the box-office iron was hot.
In contrast, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise was released in 1995, introducing Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), a young American man and a French woman, respectively, who meet on a train and spend a romantic day strolling Vienna, falling for one another before going their separate ways. In 2004's Before Sunset, our two protagonists once again do a lot of talking, but they get a second chance once Jesse decides to stay in Paris, missing his flight back to a loveless marriage and his son.
Now we're dropping in on them again and Before Midnight is, in many ways, the best film of the trio. While the first two are wonderfully romantic, they're fantasies. We all relish the idea of falling in love with someone we meet while riding the European rails, or getting the chance to reconnect with the one that got away. But few fantasize about being in their 40s, married with children. Lives can follow those paths that seem to be driven by fate and the heart, but Before Midnight is where fantasy gives way to reality.
As we find Celine and Jesse here, they live in Paris with twin girls and, despite having recently spent six weeks in Greece at the behest of a talented writer, they're feeling old and tired, worn down by life and shocked that everything they'd hoped for — life, love, family, career — has left them dazed and confused at the end of every day.
And that's where the film stands out from its predecessors, both of which were built on a foundation of passion. Now, the couple has an easiness with each other that's comfortable, like a favorite sweater. The problem, of course, is that we tend to wear such garments far too long, even after they're faded, because they're so damn comfortable.
This relationship is no different. Jesse feels like he should be in the U.S., and a part of his son's life. Celine's nervous about the dream job she's been offered and has no desire to leave Europe. Problems loom, so when the two are offered a free room at a nice hotel, they almost beg off but spend another night together walking the streets, discussing issues big and small. That part of the film is lovely, because, as actors, Hawke and Delpy have matured, and the way they play this new state of their relationship is so different from what we've seen in the past.
There are a couple of stories they tell that seemingly would've come out in the interim between films, and when they get to the final conflict, it feels as though it simply had to happen because the film has to conclude. But the way it happens feels truthful, because it's so easy for emotions to shift from passion to anger, and the people we're most capable of hurting are those we love the most.
As with the other films, this one doesn't necessarily provide us with the resolution we might seek, but that's pretty much like real life. Technically speaking, it wraps up the trilogy, but is it the end of Jesse and Celine? For their sake, and for ours, let's hope not.