Before Midnight is what comes after the end of the tale, the great stories always end with the famous And they lived happily ever after. For centuries, minstrels, novelists, screenwriters and other storytellers have been telling us the boy-meets-girl story (although now, at last, you can change the genre to your heart’s content). This is basically what the first two films of this wonderful trilogy are about, the first being the meeting and the second the reunion of the boy and the girl.
But here, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) have been together for nine years now, this is what happens after And they lived happily…, the hardest part to tell, because it’s not all happiness , but routines, children, arguments and the realistic, practical tensions of middle age and marriage or life as a couple. But Richard Linklater is still, in a way, a 12-year-old girl – as defined by Julie Delpy’s own character – who believes in happy endings, and when they have that long conversation at the dinner table about the possibility or not of that super-perfect fantasy of soul mates and love forever, I think he comes out in favor of it.
There we are confronted with three different perspectives, generational, if you like. It seems that the practicality of the younger couple, who think that love forever is impossible and that, sooner or later, the natural conclusion for the couple is to break up, sounds good to everyone. All very pragmatic and modern, but the director gives the last word to the host’s friend Natalia, an older woman who has lost her husband and remembers him with all the affection/love possible, wishing enormously that she could stay with him, she knows that everything is fleeting, but she tries very hard never to forget him, we are like the sunrise or the sunset, a passing thing. Everyone seems affected by her words and looks at each other with different eyes after her intervention.
That brings us to another of those walks between Jesse and Céline like the ones that fill the first two wonderful films. It’s funny because, by their own admission, it’s the first time they’ve been able to do so since the birth of their twins. But they don’t seem awkward or strange, the conversation flows in spurts, as always in these films, and we recognize them. They are basically the same as always, but yes, living together is leaving its marks and certain words hurt more now.
And this is where the conflict comes in, when we see them contrast the dreams and ideals of youth with the reality of life, the one that passes in front of your eyes while you think of other things. And, of course, they fight and Céline drops a bombshell, I think I don’t love you anymore, because no one tells a story about being happy forever, stories like life are about the sticks in the road. And we can think whatever but this story is about those two characters and we want to see them together, like their daughters after seeing Pinocchio or Donald Duck. So there’s a new scene and the conclusion of Before Midnight, fantasies are just that, fantasies and reality is imperfect, and that’s what Jesse tells Céline, that their love is imperfect but real, and that’s something to hold on to.
The ending is totally open, and yes Jesse and Céline reconcile, but no one can assure us that a week later they will have a fight again and it will be the definitive one. But I want to believe that Linklater still believes in fairy tales and that the king still loves the queen as he did when she was a princess. Probably because I want to believe in them too, even though my adult self knows they are as big a lie as Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or Superman.
And I like to think that Before Midnight won’t be the definitive end – although it could very well be – and that there will be a fourth film, which Linklater himself says they considered making a couple of years ago, but that Delpy, Hawke and himself abandoned the idea, as they couldn’t come up with an appealing concept. It would be an even more difficult one to tell, one in which it shows them old and still together, 98 years old, after 75 years of relationship, the same as Jesse’s grandmother, who dies in this film. And what’s more, I hope they still have enough energy left to walk and talk in a European city and stop for lunch and, with a bit of luck, live happily forever.