It's rare that you get something resembling a film franchise at Sundance, where the micro-budget indies don't usually suggest "sequel." Last night was different, though: It was the premiere of Before Midnight, the follow-up to Richard Linklater's talky romances Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the first of which opened the Sundance Film Festival all the way back in 1995. Since then, discerning audiences have become unusually invested in the courtship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who fell for each other over the course of one day in the first film, then tentatively circled each other after years apart in the second film, their potential future a question mark as Before Sunset ended. If you don't want to know what's happened to Jesse and Celine since, and you think you can avoid the sort of Before Midnight spoilers that will become apparent as soon as the first trailer is released, then turn back now! Because here comes the formerly top-secret plot of Before Midnight …
THEY GOT TOGETHER, YOU GUYS. JESSE AND CELINE GOT TOGETHER! THEY EVEN HAVE TWO ADORABLE TWIN DAUGHTERS WHO ARE BLONDE AND SPEAK FRENCH.
(And don't worry: That's something you learn in the first five minutes of the film, before the opening titles.)
"I'm actually surprised that we've lasted this long," notes Celine as Before Midnight begins in Greece, where their family is coming to the end of a monthlong idyll. Still, their eighteen-year, on-off romance is not without complications: Jesse left his wife and son to move to Paris with Celine, and now he's feeling pangs of guilt as his son enters high school, which leads to Jesse's tentative suggestion to Celine that they move to Chicago to be closer to him. Celine is not having that, though, and over the course of one day, that issue and many others come bubbling to the fore in bursts of heady, hyperliterate conversations that are this franchise's trademark pleasure. Or, as Delpy's blunt Celine puts it, "How long has it been since we wandered around bullshitting?"
Among the topics discussed at length: Is Skype "the new romance," a technological innovation that would have totally transformed Jesse and Celine's long-distance love if they'd had access to it? Is it possible that Jesse can still be attracted to Celine, who describes herself now as "a fat, middle-aged mom losing her hair"? And, in one bravura scene that Delpy plays completely topless, is there really such a thing as "soul mates," or do age and time conspire to wear down what once was intoxicating, perfect love?
It's a pleasure to be in these characters' company again, but their formerly equal partnership is upended this time to favor Delpy, who cracks blue jokes, dominates Hawke in every argument, and runs through a showy gamut of emotions in a performance that deserves awards consideration. The "Julie Delpy for Best Actress" campaign begins now! (It isn't as unlikely as it seems, given that Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater were formerly Oscar-nominated for their Before Sunset screenplay.) And while the arguments between Celine and Jesse can sometimes fall into overly familiar "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" territory, it's informed by the time we've spent with these characters and the right-on specificity of the details that both Delpy and Hawke bring to their roles.
Linklater is said to have spent the last decade shooting a film that charts a young boy's growing of age, with the neat trick that a segment is shot every year, meaning the audience can eventually watch the actors age dramatically once the film is completed. He's a filmmaker, then, unusually obsessed with aging; it's no wonder that he's also been trying to mount a follow-up to Dazed and Confused, a movie that already suggested an interest in this theme with Matthew McConaughey's sly line, "That's what I love about these high-school girls, man. I get older; they stay the same age." If Linklater continues to revisit Jesse and Celine down the road, he'll have built the narrative equivalent to Michael Apted's 7 Up documentary series, which tracks the same set of Brits every seven years. In Before Midnight, we feel the weight of age not just on these characters but on our own bodies and souls. Or, as the absent Hawke put it in a note that Linklater read after the premiere, "The star of the film is not Julie or me, but Father Time himself."