Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)
In 1995, Richard Linklater conjured a romantic fantasy by having American backpacker Jesse take a stab at spontaneous love by inviting French tourist Celine to an impromptu excursion in Vienna that has to end before sunrise. The night was magical. There were no ridiculous plot devices or grandiose musical themes, just those once-in-a-lifetime conversations about random facets of life as observed through different eyes that glued them together, at least for those few special hours. They ended their love affair with a promise.
In 2004, Linklater visited the couple separated by geography and broken promises. Jesse has just released his book based on the events that took place that fateful night in 1995, and is now in Paris to sign copies. Celine’s in town as well. Their reunion doesn’t have the exhilarating spontaneity of their initial encounter in the train, but the reminiscence of what has happened and what could have happened is too alluring to ignore. They end up in Celine’s humble hovel, listening to music, surrendering to the fairy tale that was a decade in the making.
Less than a decade after, Jesse, as unkempt as he is ancient, finds himself in a Greek airport, saying his farewell to another what-could-have-been. After hopelessly waiting for perhaps a reassuring hand gesture or eye contact from his son, he leaves the building. Romantic music deceptively plays in the background. Celine, also visibly older, is waiting outside the car. Inside, twins, we presume to be the fruits of the decision they made several years back, are sleeping. Linklater is back at his game. The ride from the airport back to their Grecian home is a treasure trove of banter and insight, of clues as to what has happened within the nine years we left the couple to plot their love story.
However, things are different now. In 1995 and 2004, Jesse and Celine are strangers, excitedly learning about each other. They scrape their lives for whatever secret story or piece of trivia they have left. Bubbling underneath an exterior of flirtatious jokes and other pleasantries are regrets and other things a life already half spent unceremoniously offers. For the first time, Linklater invites us to witness the couple interacting with others --- young lovers discovering the exhilaration of romance in a quickly virtualizing world, a working-class couple who has learned to love the idea of settling for each other’s pleasures and displeasures, and two elderly intellectuals whose varying perceptions on relationships provide both comfort and pain. In the midst of their conversations, Jesse and Celine’s romance loses their uniqueness. It is as if Linklater is preparing the film-viewing world he has molded into believing a fantasy of happily-ever-afters that exists in a cynical world to swallow the pains of seeing the perfect love be rendered imperfect.
The sun disappears. Jesse and Celine end up trapped in a boutique hotel room that forces them to confront each other, without the safety of their twins, their hosts, and the time and distance that used to separate them. The fissures of their discontent were all subtly depicted within that single day. Celine throws a knowing look at Jesse over lunch when certain sensitive topics are touched. Jesse retreats to his accented amorous and humorous declarations of sexual longing when cornered by Celine’s relentless questions. Their expected fight, which is as impassioned as the sweeping promises they used to tell each other, is the heart-breaking evidence that the beloved love story has opened itself to the biting cynicism of our current world.
Linklater has grown up. Jesse and Celine too. The way they see the world has been molded by age and regret. In a country made famous by its ruined edifices that constantly remind the greatness of its past as opposed to the uncertainty of its future, Jesse and Celine are in the brink of seeing their great love be reduced into a piece of history. Great wars of nations have been waged for principles and religion. Jesse and Celine’s war, however, is one that is waged by differences of personalities, of sex, of culture, of everything that was the subject of their laugh-filled debate over a sumptuous Grecian feast. The inevitable truth that is too bitter to swallow is that the heartbreak of seeing the romance fall apart reverberates greater than the sweet promises and expectations that got us drawn to them in the first place.
Jesse makes a last-ditch effort to save everything. In that same seaside café where Celine repeatedly said “still there, still there, still there,” she finds the heart to find truth in the mantra despite the fact that the sun is nowhere to be found. Jesse’s attempt to revive the romance, despite the adorable but passing creativity, is obviously patchwork. There are issues unresolved. From those issues, more fights, probably more vicious than the last one, will be fought. They are now engulfed by reality, just as we all are, with our mercurial moods and relationships. By being brought down to Earth, their love story has taken one big step towards immortality.