Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) became touchstones of modern romantic cinema by capturing the optimism of people in their 20s and the regrets that begin to encroach in their 30s. Intercontinental lovers Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meet on a train in the first film and reunite during a book tour in the second. At the start of Sunset, Jesse is an unhappily married father, and Celine's life and career are still unsettled. Before Midnight picks up nine years further down love's road, which contains some new types of potholes.
Now in their early 40s, Celine and Jesse are the parents of twin girls. Their love is palpable as they vacation in Greece. So are the passage of time and the weight of life's constant demands. They still playfully tease and taunt each other, and their sexual desire remains strong, yet each reads a lot into the other's words and sideways glances.
Celine really comes into her own in Midnight, in a way that seems more profound than before. She is more provocateur than paramour, more an agent of her own destiny than a pouty French beauty. She has matured over the years and developed more self-confidence, no doubt in ways that parallel the life of Delpy, who, with Hawke and Linklater, wrote the screenplays for the first two films. Hawke and Delpy know these characters so well that they can portray them with a naturalism that practically belies the presence of a screenplay.
But make no mistake: There is a script and a filming strategy. One early sequence is a single, breathtaking, 14-minute take in which Jesse and Celine talk while driving, their girls asleep in the back of the car. Another excellent sequence involves a fight in a hotel room, with clever edits that make the couple's argument seem like a boxing match. Each word is a hard-hitting jab. All the while, Linklater's attention to temporal matters never lets up.
Midnight surpasses Sunrise and Sunset in terms of its intelligence, narrative design and vivacity. It's a grand accomplishment, and I feel greedy for wanting to see this series continue. After all, romance is too often thrown away by the young. This film shows how it can ripen with time. Once the swooning years are over and middle age sets in, the real beauty and intricacies are revealed.