It is fitting that in a historic year for area filmmakers, the greatest movie coming out of Austin is from the godfather of the local film scene.
More than a half-dozen Austin filmmakers premiered movies at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The city's most artful and enigmatic filmmaker, Terrence Malick, delivered another work of stunning visual beauty in "To the Wonder." David Gordon Green won the Silver Bear for direction at the Berlin Film Festival for his strange and wonderful comedy "Prince Avalanche," which comes out later this year. And Jeff Nichols released the excellent "Mud," probably the most critically acclaimed movie of the year. Until now.
Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight" is the third in a series of stirring films that charts the romance of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). The film, which thrilled audiences and critics at Sundance and South by Southwest, is a stomach-punch of an emotional experience, an excavation of a love that has matured, soured and sweetened over the 18 years since we first met the couple in 1995's "Before Sunrise." It opened Friday in Austin.
Austin Film Society co-founder Linklater likes to joke that there were only three people who wanted him to make a follow-up to "Before Sunrise" -- Linklater and his actor-collaborators, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.
While those who saw the tale of star-crossed lovers adored the film, Linklater asserts "Before Sunrise" was the lowest-grossing theatrical release to ever spawn a sequel. The 2004 follow-up, "Before Sunset," was met with equal critical praise and grew the fan base of the indie franchise.
Nine years after the second film, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke return to the story of Jesse and Celine with "Before Midnight," a beautiful and brutal depiction of the difficulties of making love stay.
American traveler Jesse meets Parisian student Celine on a train to Vienna in "Before Sunrise." Jesse persuades Celine to depart the train and spend an evening with him before he returns to America. The two walk the city, discussing life, love, philosophy and time. It's a classic tale of the hope, spontaneity and wonder that imbue the nascent stages of romantic love.
The two make a pact to meet up in six months, but they don't cross paths again until 2004's "Before Sunset," when Jesse visits Paris on a book tour. Once again they spend a romantic day engaging in nostalgia, flirtation and the possibility of a life together. The movie ends on a hopeful and ambiguous note, as the camera fades on a shot of an enamored Jesse sitting in Celine's Paris apartment.
The trio of collaborators left Jesse and Celine alone before the fire was stoked four years ago to begin work on the next stage.
"Maybe there's something to be said about a new station in life," Linklater said of their decision to return to the story.
In "Before Midnight," with much of the hopefulness and intrigue of infinite potential sapped from their lives as parents, Jesse and Celine fight to rediscover the spark that originally led them to one another.
The third film naturally relies less on whimsy, naivete and projection. At the heart of "Before Midnight" is something much more difficult and rewarding: truth.
"Before Sunset" ended with the tease of possibility. "Before Midnight" details the ramifications of following your heart. Linklater knew that because of the emotional investment people had made in the characters in the first two films, "Before Midnight" could pose more of a challenge. There is still love between the two characters, but it is nuanced and weighted with years of living together.
Linklater realized that offering a stark interpretation of the complexities of love could challenge audiences, but he felt the best way to honor the story was to do so with honesty.
"Truth can be a blunt instrument in this world and in relationships," Linklater said. The filmmakers wanted to push the boundaries of what is romantic and offer up something that seemed real for them and their characters in this moment.
"I think if they're talking and trying to communicate, that's half the battle," Linklater said. "And the other half is if they're still making each other laugh a little, I think that's going to be romantic for 40."
Hawke and Delpy deliver the kind of lines that warm and sting the way only the words of a lover can. They sidle along one another and spin on each other, at times completing each other's sentences and other times shocking with their honesty and recrimination.
The acting has a striking naturalism that comes from decades spent working together and from a fine attention to craft, a hallmark of much of Linklater's excellent work. While it seems Hawke and Delpy may be following the natural digressive and recursive rhythms of their characters, there are hours of unseen work behind making the artifice seem real. Every line and gesture was written, workshopped and refined to give the effect that the action is happening in real time. The trio's collaborative approach has helped make the "Before" trilogy feel unique and visceral.
"Lots of directors ask you to be a part of their vision, and almost nobody asks you to have vision," said Hawke, who has made eight movies with Linklater. "It's always the same deal ... he always wants it to be our film and not his film. Almost every director is so full of 'mine' and 'me;' it's a bore. It's nice when they're so confident that they let you in."
But how can writing and acting as concrete and precise feel so alive?
"All I can say is that's the hard part. That's what drives you to the brink of your own limits," Linklater said. "I think I'm just trying to tell a story that feels real in that way, to break down the wall if possible. Obviously it's a construct but something in the viewer's mind is triggered and you accept it as real ... It helps communicate it. That's what I think a director does: What are you trying to communicate and how are you trying to communicate it? That's the challenge."
Though he never imagined the movie he initially conceived after a romantic night in Philadelphia spent "kind of disembodied, floating around" would ever lead to a series of films, Linklater says he has enjoyed reuniting every few years with these characters he has come to love. The soft-spoken director compares it to the relationship you have with an old friend whom you think about but only see on occasion and says he imagines parallel ongoing lives of many of the characters he's helped create over the years. (If you're wondering what became of Matthew McConaughey's David Wooderson of "Dazed and Confused," Linklater says he's now a city councilman ... and still hanging around high school girls. Alright, alright, alright.)
Whether the trio of collaborators, who should all receive Oscar nominations next year, return again to the story of Jesse and Celine is still to be determined. Linklater says they will only do so if they feel there is a good story to tell, but he takes a relaxed approach to the idea.
"I'd be OK if this was the last one. It feels right. But I can't predict the future," Linklater said. "On one hand I'm kind of confident we'll get there at some point. And on another, if we never do, for whatever reason, I'm OK with it as a trilogy."
What would another chapter in the lives of Jesse and Celine look like?
"We won't know for five years," Linklater said of the trio's de facto creative process. "Who knows how life unfolds."
As Linklater returns Jesse and Celine to the shelf, the tireless director focuses on his upcoming projects. Linklater has one of the most eclectic and interesting resumes of any modern American director. In 16 films over a 22-year span, he's made a comedy classic ("Dazed and Confused"), quintessential Austin movie ("Slacker"), an excellent and underappreciated period piece ("Me and Orson Welles"), family-friendly fare ("The Bad News Bears"), a sports documentary ("Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach"), a Texas-size satire ("Bernie") and a groundbreaking animated sci-fi puzzler ("A Scanner Darkly").
"I just worry you guys in Austin take him a little for granted," Hawke said.
Linklater's currently kicking around the idea for a comedy about two cousins who head to China in search of a kidney, as well as a movie set in the 1950s and a couple of other projects he says he's been researching and writing for 10 years. Linklater also says he will have a hand in helping program movies at AFS' new screening home, the Marchesa Theater.
On the year in which the Austin film world celebrated the 20th anniversary of "Dazed and Confused," the avid cinephile said it gave him pause when he realized that he's the same age (52) as legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut when he died. But Linklater has no plans of slowing down.
"I think you get better with age," Linklater said. "I love people's last movies. I know some people don't share that opinion, but I think there's something to that."
What will his last movie be?
"Besides being a long time from now?" Linklater says with a laugh. "But I want to die when I lock picture. It's kind of romantic to die on set, but I want to finish the movie."
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