An edited version of this review originally appeared at Christianity Today Movies & TV. All rights reserved.
“We know that we are going to break up eventually.”
So says a young woman in the middle of her first great romantic attachment. The context is a dinner with cross-generational acquaintances at a villa in Greece. Three couples of varying ages are discussing friendship, companionship, commitment, sex—all the things that pass for or indicate love in the modern world—and they all seemingly agree on one thing: nothing relational in this world is permanent. Or, if they don’t agree, nobody is willing to fly publicly in the face of what has graduated from the status of conventional wisdom to that of accepted fact. Men and women want to love and be loved. They want it desperately enough that they must and will keep pairing off even as they loudly and persistently assert that love’s attainment is at best a random, lucky draw, at worst—and most probably—an illusory fairy tale.
I have always thought it significant that when Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) met as strangers on a train eighteen years ago (in Before Sunrise), the immediate catalyst was a shared disgust at a publicly bickering (apparently) married couple. There follows an awkward, recycled joke about how married couples lose the ability to hear the pitch in which the opposite gendered partner speaks (“nature’s way of allowing couples to grow old without killing each other”), and Jesse later shares that his parents once said they stayed together only for the sake of the kids. Message to boomers, gen-xers, gen-yers, and millennials received: there’s marriage and then there’s love, and never the twain shall meet.
The dismissal of marriage and the search for what could possibly replace it as a sufficient outward sign that one’s relationship is special, nay unique, is the thread that ties three very different Celine and Jesse movies together. In Before Sunrise the characters speak in emotive, modern spiritual language (the preferred descriptor of their status is that they have a “connection”) to persuade themselves and others that something other than emotional infatuation or physical desire is driving them towards intimacy. How to demonstrate that claim in action, how to differentiate this relationship from a hook up, proves to be a problem beyond their capacity to solve. Celine’s one idea is to refrain from having sex, since that will at least make their relationship, even if she assumes it will still only be a one-night affair, different. The couple is unable to follow through on that resolution (although it is not confirmed that they did sleep together until Before Sunset), but they are able to follow through on the resolution to not exchange addresses of contact information so that a follow up meeting in six months can be entirely voluntary. Even this plan seems more like a rejection of any external, concrete obligation than a positive attempt to forge their own kind of covenant. Commitment, even just a commitment to call, write, or see each other again, is seen as a form of bondage, poison to a love relationship, despite the mutual assurances that continuing the relationship is what they both want.
In Before Sunset we learned that Celine never made that follow up meeting (her grandmother died and she was attending the funeral). Jesse wrote an autobiographical novel about their first encounter and eventually moved on to marry someone else and father a son. In the second film, Celine appears while Jesse is on a book tour and they engage in an afternoon of conversation, ostensibly to catch up but really to test the emotional waters and see if that perfect spark can be rekindled. Jesse’s marriage morally complicates their flirtation, but not as much as one might think (or hope). Love, connections, romance, fantasy, they all trump ceremony and sacrament because the characters, representative of their world, prioritize the emotional bonds created by the former over the societal or moral bonds created by the latter.
When Before Midnight begins—and beyond this point there are unavoidable plot spoilers—Jesse is putting his son on a plane back to his mother in the United States. He and Celine are together, having conceived, birthed, and raised twin girls. It is strongly implied that they are not married, although they have told their daughters that they are. Jesse wants to be more of a presence in his son’s life, which the couple senses would mean moving back to the United States. Celine does not want to give up a recently offered “dream job” merely to have child custody every-other weekend. They discuss their relationship in the car driving back from the airport, at the villa in Greece where they are vacationing, and at a hotel they have booked for a romantic evening that descends into a fight. Conflicts, both recent and simmering, come to a boil all at once.
Bertolt Brecht once famously opined that “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The separate ends to which art is used, the diversity of things that the audience wants to get from the experience of viewing a film, makes it inevitable that viewers (perhaps especially Christian viewers) will sometimes have love-hate relationships with certain films. As a mirror to reality, Before Midnight is top notch. The patterns of speech, the subjects of argument, the worries the couple face, and the imperfect ways they deal with those worries, should be familiar to most viewers. It is a testament to how rounded and real Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have made these characters that when one of them says “this is how it ends,” I felt grief akin to what I’ve felt when I’ve heard that actual couples I knew were breaking up. (The film ends, like each in the series, ambiguously, with choices facing the characters but no absolute indication of whether they are, in fact, breaking up or deciding to stay together.)
Yet for all the ways in which Before Midnight accurately depicts the seemingly inescapable frailties of a relationship built on modern notions of romanticized love—Celine’s resentment at Jesse’s family; the couple’s mutual insecurity manifesting itself in a constant, endless need for the specialness of the relationship to be proclaimed; the fear inculcated by the fact that to destroy a relationship each new obstacle need not be insurmountable but only stronger than the partner’s feelings at the current moment; the ways in which sex becomes less of a joyous celebration of union and more a desperate attempt to re-“connect”—there is something maddening about the way the conflicts never lead the characters to question their assumptions, never cause them to wonder if they might be happier and more fulfilled not with a different lover but with a different understanding of what love is.
Perhaps they do but sense that down that road lies madness. Celine scoffs at Jesse in one scene, derisively calling him “a closet Christian.” Jesse evades a question about fidelity by reconstructing it into one he can answer affirmatively (he is completely committed to the relationship, accepts her flaws, and loves her unconditionally). Celine insists that Jesse’s marriage would have ended eventually anyway, even if she had not reentered his life and participated in his adultery. Each of these scenes, along with the aforementioned one where the couple expresses bewilderment about why it is important to their daughters that they be married, hints that the characters have a moral consciousness which, however much they repress it, is not totally placated by their definition of love and their use of it to justify the choices they have made in their lives.
If I were convinced the movie was self-aware about Jesse’s and Celine’s cultivated moral evasiveness, persuaded that the way they habitually raise moral questions only to skirt them was a critique of the worldview (or at least love view) that the first two film’s appeared to champion, I would probably consider Before Midnight a masterpiece. What I think we actually get in the film is a world view that is brilliantly mirrored but never really analyzed. Marriage, to parrot G. K. Chesterton’s famous saying about Christianity, has not been tried and found wanting so much as found hard and left untried. What is increasingly evident in this film is that relationships, whether bound in marriage or not, are hard. While it is certainly true that people do have loving relationships outside of marriage and unloving ones within marriage, the possibility that the institution, the sacrament, might actually provide tangible benefits that while not ensuring the conditions of a happy, permanent relationship can support and promote them is never openly or seriously considered in the film.
Jesse and Celine may be too far gone down the path of lamenting how their relationship has been influenced by past choices to seriously consider whether other (kinds of) choices are yet possible, but is that true of all people at this stage of their life? The fatalism imbuing the characters and the film is certainly representative of what many couples feel in middle-age, a period in which there are as many or more choices behind them as awaiting them and where the quality of a relationship is influenced as much by the fruit of past decisions as the pleasurable contemplation of future ones. Again, though, does the fact that the feelings expressed in the film are so ubiquitous mean they are grounded universally true?
There is little to no serious attempt to compare or contrast the relationship with any others; the film is simply an exquisitely detailed warts-and-all portrait. For all that, no film I’ve seen in recent memory has led to more substantive and productive conversations about what goes into a good relationship. Even if the characters themselves don’t model good choices, even if the film doesn’t appear to value their choices wisely (or even coherently), is it not one of the functions of great art to challenge and provoke rather than assure and placate? Before Midnight is in no way a “Christian” film, but it is an attempt by serious artists to represent faithfully the world we live in, and by doing so it reveals truths about that world and the people that inhabit it. That some of the people in it (or some watching it) may not be able to grasp all those truths or act upon them makes for a viewing experience that is often more painful than it is pleasurable. Still, I would rather be invited to wrestle with some difficult and potentially painful truths than be anesthetized by more vacuous violence, crude comedy, or pseudo-philosophy. Summer is littered with plenty of mindless entertainment. In that landscape, we are not likely to get a more thoughtful or thought provoking film than Before Midnight.