Before Midnight

Before Midnight ★★★★★

Expectations are an interesting thing. Sometimes, you do your best to keep the bar low and are blown away; other times, anticipation builds to a point where you can't help but be let down at whatever final product finds its way into your lap.

But then there is that rare occasion, the one situation we always hope for, where our expectations are sky high and somehow, magically, the pot at the end of the rainbow actually turns out to contain large sums of gold. The noise surrounding whatever it is you are anticipating is on full blast, a ten, and somehow, the final product manages to crank the knob to eleven and not be distorted in any way. No static, no fuzz, just magnificent music to your ears.

Richard Linklater's Before Midnight is that rare occasion, a fantastic if not perfect exception to the rule and a darn fine film no matter how you splice it.

The funny thing is that I never saw a clip or trailer for Before Midnight prior to seeing it. I didn't read anything about its plot, and only vaguely knew about its production, which makes sense given it was filmed in secret on location in Greece. And yet, it was my most anticipated film of 2013, largely because of the two films that came before it: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

Each of these three films follows two intriguing-yet-everyday characters, Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and allows us to see snippets of their lives at specific points in time, cinematic masterpieces that let us glance at these characters' lives for just a few precious hours. And yet, whenever we are reunited with Celine and Jesse, we never feel as though we've missed out on much. We are easily reacquainted and quickly thrust into the moment.

What Before Midnight, and really the whole series thus far, does so well is allow its main characters room to breath to hash out all the intricacies of their relationship. They talk and talk and talk, but never come off as overly chatty. Every word that leaves their tongues contains substance and meaning.

In 1995, with Before Sunrise, we saw Celine and Jesse -- both 23 years of age -- meet on a train and walk around Vienna all night and into the wee hours of the morning, discussing life, love, and various aspects of the world, ranging from the mundane to the peculiar to the spectacular.

Nine years later, in 2004's Before Sunset, we were dropped in on the lives of Celine and Jesse once more, now 32 year olds, catching up with the pair as they walk the streets of Paris for 90 minutes before Jesse must leave to catch a plane.

With Before Midnight, nine more years have passed as we are brought back into the couple's story. They remain together, now 41, on vacation in Greece, again making their way through a European city, spouting their opinions and talking about the intricacies of love and life-long commitment. Love is all about imperfections, how we perceive them and how we treat them. Never is that idea more evident than in Before Midnight.

Perhaps the greatest testament to what Linklater and Co. have produced in Before Midnight is that it isn't afraid to consider the consequences of that night in Vienna, the couple's afternoon spent in Paris, and all the years that have passed since. Never are those consequences so real as in Before Midnight's opening scene, one that carries through the entire film and, upon reflection, couldn't have been any better at starting this chapter of Celine and Jesse's story.

The Before films are not your typical romantic dramas, in that we are never given a happy ending -- here, falling in love isn't the end of the story. Instead, each film ends on an ambiguous note, leaving the door open for future Celine-and-Jesse drop-ins but remaining a well-contained story in its own right. Rarely have cliffhangers ever felt so satisfying.

The most unique aspect of this series of films is that, unlike many other franchises, the Before franchise doesn't contain an arced storyline that requires a specific viewing order. Conventional wisdom would dictate that you see them in order -- first Sunrise, then Sunset, and finally Midnight -- but that's not really necessary here.

Richard Linklater and his stars allow us, as viewers, to pop into Celine and Jesse's lives at whatever time we please and then jump around from there. Does it make sense to start at Sunrise, the romantic beginning, and work our way to present day? Sure. But you could just as easily enter the story at Sunset or Midnight. Many will prefer to start at the beginning and see how the story progresses from there, but you can certainly jump in a bit further down the line and then go back to see how Celine and Jesse got to where they are today.

All I pray is this isn't the last time we get to catch up with these characters. I'd love to check back in with Celine and Jesse in another nine years, at age 50, and see where their lives have taken them. Or in 18 or 27 years, and see how their relationship changes, how their love adapts, as the years go by.

Now praying.

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