Jun 28, 2013


Mirrors to Look Into
Before Midnight, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is the third movie in a trilogy about the 20-year love affair and not-quite-marriage of Jesse, a successful American novelist, and Celine, a French bureaucrat and liberal activist. Even in the somewhat saccharine opening scenes, revealing two or more articulate, progressive, quick-witted people, we’re likely to notice that he tends toward arrogance, she toward hysteria (if that's too grand a word, think Drama Queen).  I predict that some viewers will hate him or her, or both, or the whole movie, but I predict those witnesses will end up in long and useful discussions about what they’ve seen.

We begin at the end of a summer in the southern Peloponnese, a romantic site where things begin sweetly, but where, almost three millennia  ago, a helluva series of wars occurred, and even now, on a much smaller domestic scale, the seeds of conflict are sewn. At a bucolic dinner for eight intelligent friends, comments pretending affection are also filled with menace.

I’ve attended such dinners, and I found this one disturbingly real. No one is willing to fire a cannon, so pellets of mustard gas drop discreetly under the table. The characters, experienced at this gamesmanship, are able to smile and hold their noses all at once. 

Branch That Bends

What made me most uncomfortable and what I might have liked most about the movie was that alternation between frontal attack and guerilla warfare in a long-term, transatlantic relationship, including three children, Jesse’s ex-wife and son in Chicago, the twin girls he and Celine have together, and Celine’s former romances and escapades.

Jesse and Celine both want their way, but both hope to play by some set of rules. Sometimes they do. But in almost every exchange they push each other’s buttons in destructive ways that are at least half-deliberate. Then they quickly retreat into euphemism or wit or intellectual digressions.

Tag, you’re it. No, I’m not. Yes, you are. We ought to be more mature. But we’re not. That’s right. Well, I am. No, you’re not. We’re too modern and sophisticated for this. Apparently we’re not. 


Play long enough and the wounds grow deep, not to mention the fatigue. Chances are, if we’re honest, we know we’ve all played—if not domestically, then professionally or politically or morally. More subconsciously than unconsciously, we try to get away with self-serving maneuvers, and it’s a complex game of deception, a mean beast with tentacles. Before Midnight wore me out, but I felt gratitude that these filmmakers were treating the subject of contemporary marriage with realism, exhausting and uncertain as it is.

Faux Greek
Throughout the movie, the gorgeous Greek setting might act as a palliative against the tensions among the characters. The color and the prettiness help to prevent another Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Before Midnight is that complex without being as bleak; its characters are not as cannibalistic or as removed from Western social norms as Albee’s grim academic foursome.

By the way, I saw the first two Jesse and Celine movies, liked them, forgot them. I don’t think that will happen this time, and, by the way, those two forerunners are in no way a requirement for understanding this film. 



Anonymous said...

Well then, must see it. And I could write about this kind of stuff forever. I really do think it comes down to that which we initially find so charming in another is the very thing that will later irritate us beyond reason.

Barbaro said...

You've certainly brought out the subtlety in the flick. I must say, though, it sounds a bit like an old Woody Allen movie without the humor. Maybe I'm too young, or too single, or too scarred by my own parents, but I tend to get pretty impatient with all-too-realistic examinations of marriage. Very thoughtful review; don't take it personally if I neglect to rush out and see the movie.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I remember when the first of the trilogy came out years ago. I liked it. Then the second came along and what a neat idea it seemed, to follow the story into the future. And I hoped #3 would take it even further. Instead I felt like Celine turned into the "does this dress make my butt look big"? female, and I roll my eyes.
The Greek setting with a grown up Celine (and yes, I am picking on her) would make me like it better.
My awe is in the movie trilogy. Did you have any idea when you saw #1 that two more would follow? I find that amazing!

Hannah Stephenson said...

I saw the very first one...maybe I should see this one, too! Sounds a bit stressful (but well-written and visually-pleasing).

Pasadena Adjacent said...

My husband is a big fan of this series. Glad to hear that the third one is packing so much punch

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