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Monday, 29 July 2013


Before Midnight is part of a franchise, the third film in a series that began eighteen years ago with Before Sunset. The central characters of all three films are Jesse, an American student and then writer, and Celine, a Parisian idealist who ends up working on environmental projects.

The story so far. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train, and wander around Vienna all night, talking and falling in love. They promise to meet again, one year from the day they met.

In the second film, Before Sunset, nine years later, Jesse has written a book about his and Celine's night together. She turns up at a reading he does in Paris, and they reconnect. We learn that Celine never showed up for their meeting the year after, and also that Jesse wrote the book, in part, in order to find Celine again.

The first two films are incredibly simple, each basically consisting of one long extended conversation between the two leads, one as they walk through Vienna, the other as they stroll around Paris.

The films are simple on the surface, but embrace romance, regret, the passing of time, the difficulty of love, the spirit and hope of youth, and show us the slow, meandering development of a relationship between two people from different sides of the world. They are subtle, gentle, profound pieces of cinema.

In the third film, Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine are now together and in their forties. It is nine years after the second film and they have twin girls, and are on holiday in Greece.

Immediately, this film feels different. For one thing, there are other significant characters, the couple's daughters, their hosts in Greece, their Greek friends. The film is full, compared to the first two.

There is one great scene where all of the guests in the villa sit around and talk after dinner. They talk about memory, love, the battle of the sexes, and tell stories and gossip. It is a group of people happy to talk about ideas and fittingly, as they are in Greece, not afraid of musing about philosophy.

Then their friends offer to look after the kids, and our two central characters go off together for a night away, just Jesse and Celine alone, as in the first two movies. In their hotel room they argue, tell stories, reminisce, worry and argue. And then they argue some more. And then this becomes all that they do.

In fact, most of the second half is taken up with the pair bickering, just like any other middle-aged married couple. It is like This is 40, but without the jokes.

The point of the argument is the inability of them both, in their different ways, - but especially anxiety-driven Celine - to deal with reality. And this is reality, the film seems to be saying. Relationships are not all romance and passion and destiny, like the first two films. Life and marriage are hard, complex, things get messy.

This is all very well, and true, I'm sure, but it is no fun to watch two characters - especially characters you have come to like and identify with over two films - bicker and argue and be petty and neurotic. By the end they had both lost my sympathy, and I didn't care if they really did split.

It's a pity, because it all started so well. It was witty, philosophical, there was the interplay between the characters, they were uncertain and charming and funny. The film set itself up to be a mature continuation of the first two in the series, and ended up somehow being the antithesis of the subtlety, humour and magic of its predecessors.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset worked because they were a magical escape from reality, or else a heightening of this reality, an exploration of the possible. The characters were on the move right through the films, walking, travelling on boats, wandering from place to place, changing their environment as they attempted to change themselves and their world.

Before Midnight brings us right back down to a mundane, soured present that is really not much fun anymore. In contrast to the first two films they spend most of their time in a hotel room, the claustrophobia of the setting mirroring the stifling nature of their relationship. The magic is gone, for Jesse and Celine, and also, sadly, for us the viewers.

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