The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008. The Hangover came out in 2009. Each franchise is now cashing in on a third entry, having churned out inferior sequels as quickly as possible in hope of striking while the box-office iron was hot.
In contrast, Before Sunrise, the Richard Linklater film that would turn out to be the first of a trilogy, was released in 1995—almost 20 years ago. In that one, we were introduced to Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), a young American man and a French woman who met on a train and spent a romantic day walking around Vienna, falling for one another before eventually going their separate ways.
In Before Sunset, the sequel that came out nine years later, our two protagonists once again do a lot of talking. But they, along with the audience, get a second chance once Jessie decides to stay in Paris, missing his flight back to his loveless marriage and his son.
Now we're dropping in on them again, another nine years later, 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 opportunity to truly reconnect with the one that got away. 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—opening Friday, May 31, at Hillcrest Cinemas— is where fantasy gives way to reality. As we find Celine and Jessie here, they live in Paris, they have twin girls and, despite having just 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 Before Midnight stands out from its predecessors, both of which were built on a foundation of passion. Now, Jessie and Celine have 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 or have small holes, because they're so damn comfortable.
This relationship is no different. Jessie 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. There are problems looming, 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 one another that I'm sure would've come out at least once 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 if there's a real truth to be found in Before Midnight, it's that 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. We don't know what will happen with this couple we've grown to know so well over the years, and, technically speaking, this wraps up the trilogy. But is it the end of Jessie and Celine? For their sake, and for ours, let's hope not.