It is fair to say that very few people were even aware of this film’s existence before it was announced as part of the Sundance line-up at the beginning of 2013. Again taking place nine years after the events of the previous film (both in real life and within the film’s own chronology), and Jesse and Celine are together, have twin daughters and are vacationing in Greece. Also with them is Jesse’s son from his previous marriage – a relationship he ended after getting together with Celine at the end of the previous film. As the lad heads home back to his mother, and friends agree to take care of the girls, Jesse and Celine again find themselves alone to spend an evening of quality time together.
Over the course of a single evening, all the frustrations and unspoken grievances between the couple bubble to the surface, resulting in a series of heated conversations and one particularly nasty argument that is as frighteningly realistic as anything you may have experienced in your own relationships. Earlier in the film, Jesse and Celine have a long lunch with their friends, who represent different generations, both older and younger, whose views on love, marriage and monogamy all differ from what Jesse and Celine have believed and fought for themselves over nearly two decades.
The result is not only the best of the three films in the series, but also one of the most acutely observed, finely written and vividly performed relationship dramas in all of American Cinema. While that might sound somewhat hyperbolic, the fact remains that Before Midnight resonates with a truth and authenticity unlike any other. Jesse and Celine are far from a perfect couple, they are also no longer the pretty young things they once were. Their bodies are showing the strains of age, their love for each other is dancing on equally unstable ground. They are no longer besotted by each other, and as often irritated by each other’s views and personalities as they are attracted to them. There is no guarantee that the couple will live happily ever after, or that they will make it through this single evening together without fighting, separating or filing for divorce.
What makes Before Midnight so successful, however, is that the film works as a romantic comedy just as well as it succeeds as a relationship drama. While their friends have the luxury of being without a dramatic arc, and are free to quip and make jokes as in a traditional comedy, Linklater and his actors repeatedly remind us that at the end of the day Jesse and Celine are intelligent, quick-witted individuals. This is a large part of why we warmed to them in the first place. As a couple who know each other inside out, they are able to banter and bounce off each other fast and freely, and the chemistry between Hawke and Delpy feels so real and deeply engrained that you sometimes forget you are watching a fiction, rather than simply eavesdropping on a real-life bickering couple.
As unexpected as it might sound, Before Midnight stands as one of the very best threequels out there, at once able to stand on its own as a successful comedy drama, yet when enriched by the two films that precede it, evolves into an incredibly accomplished and rewarding piece of cinema that might, somewhat unassumingly, prove to be the best American film of the year.