Well, what can I say? Here is yet another film that the critics raved over which I found watchable but not enthralling.
The third in a trilogy – Before Sunriseand Before Sunsetbeing the first two – the films chart the stories of Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) who have a chance encounter in Vienna, go their separate ways, and meet up again in Paris in Before Sunset,a film with an ambiguous ending – do they stay together or does he return to America?
For aficionados, Before Midnightanswers all those questions left hanging in the air. We find Jesse at the airport saying goodbye to his son who is returning home to his mother after a summer holiday; it is not clear at first who this mother might be. It is a poignant scene, reminding all us parents of how difficult it is to talk to teens, fussy questions about sport and hobbies, work and play always being met by grunts. Sigh of relief when outside we find Celine waiting for Jesse, with a brace of gorgeous girls in the back seat of the car – ah, so Jesse didn’t go back to the US.
The stilted conversation with son Hank is in contrast to the never-ending flow that drives the rest of the film, for it is all talk and very little action. Linklater’s specialty is the long take, for instance the conversation in the car returning to the idyllic villa (we are in Greece by the way) lasts a full seven or eight minutes and, while seemingly banal, simultaneously sets out the stall for the meat of the movie: Celine’s career ambitions and Jesse’s guilt at not being an adequate father to his son.
A little more background is revealed at the villa, which turns out to be the home of a Greek writer, played by Zorba the GreekCinematographer, Walter Lassally, whose wooden delivery implies it is the only truly scripted part. The free-flowing banter of the rest of the guests in the villa can only be largely improvised to the barebones of a script: rarely have I seen such natural conversation in a movie, the repartee on a par with early Woody Allen. Indeed Delpy and Hawke share the credits for scriptwriting.
Jesse is now a renowned writer – invited here on retreat – and he indulges his fellow guests with the outline of his new novel, a departure from his first two, which reflect his relationship with Celine, much to her fury. He is toying with exploring characters with brain disorders, who are not capable of contextualising their lives or taking responsibility for the past or future, only the present. A reflection perhaps of Jesse’s state of mind – or, if you are Celine, his inability to grow up.
What should be a romantic evening, with the gift of babysitting and an escape to a luxury hotel room, turns into a long rant – mostly by Celine, who washes all the dirty linen of the past 10 years on the screen, repeating feminist mantras the while. As a working mother, I have some sympathy with her perspective but somehow I find her irritating and unreasonable, she putting words into Jesse’s mouth and thoughts into his head. Not that he is blameless, of course, but he is gallant and calm in the face of the onslaught.
Now I must come clean – I did not see the first two films and thus do not have an abiding interest in either Jesse or Celine, the what-happened-next-syndrome that has delighted the other critics. Mrs. Grumpy takes as she finds, and in this case I felt more like a voyeur in some very private conversations – witty as they are, reflecting of many a modern relationship as they might be – but really not that engrossing or different from any other ‘bullshit’ couples talk. Take away the beautiful scenery and what remains is a perfectly good play.