June 13--For some moviegoers, the most anticipated sequel of the summer of 2013 is not "Iron Man 3" or "The Hangover Part III" but "Before Midnight," the third chapter in a series that began with "Before Sunrise" in 1995 and continued with "Before Sunset" in 2004.
Nine-year gaps between films would sink a studio action franchise, but the unforgiving impact of time and the slipperiness of its mysterious mental record, memory, are the very subjects of "Before Midnight." As an old woman in the movie comments: "We appear and we disappear -- and we are so important to some, but we are just passing through."
Like its predecessors, "Before Midnight" unfolds in casual, more or less real time as a sort of filmed conversation between its stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who return as Jesse, an American, and Celine, a Frenchwoman, the lovers introduced in the earlier films. As a sign of their continued investment in the characters, Hawke and Delpy are credited as co-writers, as they were on the previous film, along with director Richard Linklater, who, in a way, has a dual responsibility in this series. In addition to being the writer-director, he is the moviegoer's surrogate: always present yet unseen, watching and listening as Jesse and Celine debate, fight and pitch woo.
The earlier films depicted courtships, more or less. In the 1995 movie, Jesse and Celine meet by chance, and spend a memorable, romantic day together in Vienna. In the 2004 follow-up, they reunite in Paris; Jesse is married, Celine is not. The movie ends ambiguously. What's certain is that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy demonstrated for the second time that they could create a mesmerizing film from deceptively simple elements: performance; talk; elegant, almost "invisible" camerawork.
"Before Midnight" is almost as compelling as its predecessors, even if its bookended by scenes that feel contrived, perhaps due to an awareness that this third film officially establishes the "Before" films as a sort of art house franchise. The opening scene finds Jesse, 41, saying goodbye at the airport to his 13-year-old son, who is returning to America after spending the summer in Greece with Jesse and Celine. The father-son banter is not unrealistic, but it wouldn't be out of place if the dad were played by Greg Kinnear (in a family comedy) or Jason Statham (if the son were about to be kidnapped).
The movie gets back on course during a long single-take driving sequence that establishes that Jesse and Celine, though unmarried, have been together since the previous film and are the parents of beautiful twin daughters. Inevitably, their relationship is now more pragmatic than romantic, even though they're in a land of "myth and tragedy." Celine has a job in clean energy, but she's somewhat resentful of the burdens of motherhood, while Jesse acts like "an American teenager." The final act takes place in a clean, attractive but blandly generic hotel room, where Jesse and Celine have their first major on-screen fight. It's to the filmmakers' and actors' credit that we're uncertain whether the resolution will be happy; doesn't the title "Before Midnight" suggest the beginning of the end? Perhaps we'll find out, in 2022.
"Before Midnight" is at the Cordova Cinema and the Ridgeway Four.
(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
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