An Epic Grecian Conflict, But No Trojans Needed (at least for tonight)
Review by Ken Burke Before Midnight
Another 9-years-in-the-making episode about Jesse and Celine who met on a European train long ago, finally connected, but now are threatened by their own volatile natures.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]
Back in the spring of 1996 when Siskel & Ebert At the Movies was still active in its original TV format (both of the hosts were still alive, which, sadly, neither is now), Gene Siskel said of the Coen brothers’ Fargo something to the effect of, “You won’t see a better film all year” (which was enough of an encouragement to me to make the trek over to San Francisco to one of the “exclusive” theatres rather than wait for it to finally make the watery trek over to the East Bay—and well worth it, Gene [wherever you are now], because I agree with that pronouncement; sorry, Hamlet, Jerry Maguire, Lone Star, Secrets and Lies, Shine, Sling Blade, etc.—although for me it’s a close race with Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves featuring Emily Watson’s transplendent performance), a brave prediction given that most of what ends up being Oscar contenders aren’t released until the late fall or early winter in an attempt to play to the “recency” aspect of successful persuasion tactics (with “primacy” [“agenda-setting”] being the other one; research shows either to be effective in specific applications, but where months have elapsed from a film’s release date until awards season, I'd say “recency” is assumed to offer better odds). While Siskel’s evaluation didn’t hold true for that year’s Best Picture Oscar voters (they were more fascinated with the literary adaptation of The English Patient, giving it Best Director for Anthony Minghella as well, although Fargo and Joel Coen were respectively nominated; Fargo also got 5 other nominations, taking home the statues for Best Actress Frances McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens) it still works for me where the quality of Fargo is concerned and gives me reason to risk making a similar prediction about Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the latest foray into the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy)—a cinematic couple well-loved by fans of the independent-film-stepchildren of the mainstream cinema, even if we’ve had to wait 9 years each between the updates on their lives (thank God we’ve only had to wait since 2006 for the Bluth family of TV’s Arrested Development to return or we might be stuck with post-college George Michael [Michael Cera] interning at Google where things would get all mixed up with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in the upcoming movie The Internship [Shawn Levy; more on the latter at http://www.theinternship movie.com/ and the former, with episode summaries and a lot of trivia details at http://epguides. com/ArrestedDevelopment/ but if you desire full-fledged in-depth Development try http://the-op.com/—go to the LEARN MORE box in the upper left corner or just wander all over the site if you really want to get into being Arrested)—not that it will be the best film of 2013 but will likely offer the Best Original Screenplay that anyone could possibly write this year. I’ve already got arguments on that from my inner circle (more on that later), but for me this film presents a tour de force of writing put masterfully into on-screen execution, with help in that process from 2 of the cowriters playing the characters for which they've contributed greatly to the final dialogue.
However, that very dialogue might be what would limit this film for those of you who’d prefer something more than what largely amounts to 2 people talking to each other (with some input from a very limited number of others) for a bit over an hour and a half. Essentially, this film is nothing but a necklace containing the beads of 6 well-crafted dialogues—the first as a mostly-clumsy interchange between Jesse and his son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), as the middle-school-age kid is about to leave Greece to return home after spending some summer vacation weeks with Dad, his now live-in Parisian lover (while bitter ex-wife Mom resides in Chicago), and their young twins; the second being a monumentally-effective 14 min. continuous 2-shot looking in at Jesse and Celine as they drive back to their southern Peloponnese villa (the film was shot there, near Messenia) from the airport after Hank's departure, beginning the conversation that will send their 9-year relationship (which began in the previous film of this [so far] trilogy, Before Sunset [Linklater, 2004], or 18-year if you trace it back to their 1-night stand in Before Sunrise [Linklater, 1995]) into a long-simmering tailspin; the third, a lengthy lunch scene at the villa, shared with their host, Patrick (played by novice-actor-but-Oscar-winning cinematographer [for Zorba the Greek] Walter Lassally), and a few companions who discuss life, love, men, and women (nothing like some Kalamata olives and a few glasses of Retsina to get the whimsical-but-borderline nastiness flowing); after lunch we get just Jesse and Celine for the rest of the film, beginning with the fourth segment where they walk constantly toward us while beginning a discussion supposed to be in prelude to their final night in the Mediterranean—a getaway hotel delight supplied by their lunch friends who also agree to take the (barely-seen) twins until the next day—but one that further illustrates the cracks in their not-fully-constructed relationship; we then move on to dialogue #5, the intended night of passion, interrupted by a phone call from Hank which sets off the kind of interpersonal collision that no amount of insurance coverage would seem to be able to restore; and, finally, we find these two—at some time before midnight of that one day we’ve been following in ancient-Greek-theatrical-tragedy structure—at a table by the water at the hotel’s outdoor café, where all that has gone before must attempt to be brought to some (hopefully positive) resolution. Whether such reconnection occurs, whether you want to know more 9 years from now, and whether you’ve been able to flow along with this marvelously-choreographed conversational pas de deux will be determined solely by how effective you think these two actors are in bringing a theatre full of secret voyeurs into the intimacy of their characters’ lives. For me, it was a marvelous but disturbing daylong journey by Celine and Jesse, although one that feels like trying to step carefully over a mile of broken glass in bare feet, occasionally slipping enough to feel the pain while trying to diligently move on before the blood flow increases.
Of the 3 longest scenes of the above 6 (by my subjective sense of screen-time allotted; I wasn’t clocking each one), the most neutral/optimistic is the return-from-the-airport interaction which sets up the conflicts that will later emerge as the flashpoint crises that are severely troubling Jesse (his discomfort at not being available as a better father for Hank) and Celine (her difficult choice of continuing to be a dedicated-but-frequently-thwarted-environmental-activist or trying to bring about more effective change by taking a ministry job with the French government that she has little respect for). In the old days a 35mm camera could hold only about 10 min. of film stock so even with precise rehearsals and a camera mounted on a crane for maximum movement with, around, and above the actors and their environment (as magnificently done by Orson Welles in the 3-min. opening scene of 1958’s Touch of Evil where we’re led all over Tijuana and across the border into California [see it for yourself at http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom /video/21258/Touch-of-Evil-Movie-Clip-This-Ticking-Noise.html from the more-recent “director’s cut” version of the film based on Welles’ notes rather than the original studio decision to superimpose opening credits over this magnificently-orchestrated single shot]) it was extremely difficult to have any single exposure go on for very long (although Alfred Hitchcock experimented with this concept in his 1948 adaptation of the stage play Rope, where action sometimes pushed the 10 min. film magazine to its limit, with long takes linked by clever edits, but it was all done on one confined set so that the actors and cinematographer didn’t have to move around in space too much). With considerably smaller/video cameras available to filmmakers today we’re treated to an amazing single-shot conversation between Celine and Jesse where the camera seems to be mounted to the front of their moving car (there’s never any sense of change of on-screen framing so it’s unlikely this could have been shot from another vehicle in front of them moving at precisely the same speed), allowing us to travel through space with them for the stunning, lengthy 2-shot as they each lay out their personal nagging concerns—her conflict over staying independent or signing up with the government in order to better achieve her social-benefit goals, his turmoil over continuing to live in Paris with Celine and the twins, thereby vastly limiting his fatherly ambitions with Hank (even though any proximity with the former wife causes trauma for Celine and even for Hank because the off-screen ex-Mrs. Jesse [if she’s ever better identified in either this film or Before Sunset I must admit I never caught her name]) which will become the source of escalating conflicts in the next 2 of these extended encounters between the main characters of Before Midnight.
After their lively lunch discussion with the few others at this summer-vacation-writers’-retreat (which obviously benefitted Jesse more than Celine as she was forced to maintain her activist’s presence via long-distance technology—which possibly contributed to an unexpected defeat for her most current project as we learn in that extended car ride noted above—while he was able to develop his ideas for his fourth novel [the first 3 have already led to international success, with the initial one based on that fateful encounter with Celine]), we next follow our complex couple as they walk through the surrounding neighborhood and countryside of southern Greece (actually, it’s more like they’re following us as we seem to move backwards in front of them; they constantly walk toward us in another wonderfully-smooth extended traveling scene—with a lot of long takes but not as continuous as the one above in the car), intensifying the previous talk and revealing Celine’s growing doubts that Jesse would even find her attractive enough in both a physical and emotional manner to begin again with her now, especially given her awareness that her independence and rejection of stereotypical women’s roles goes counter to what men of all cultures seem to be conditioned to want in a female lover/companion (she even plays with a bimbo persona during the lunch dialogue as a combination playful/sarcastic condemnation of reducing her—or any woman—to such a subservient level). As they get further into their long, late-afternoon stroll she’s also becoming defensive about the potential government job, accusing him of preventing her from taking it (even though he’d previously been supportive of her reluctance to do so) by dragging her off to Chicago so they can be near Hank, while he’s falling into the undesirable position of presenting himself as the rational, analytical one about their situation, setting her up as the emotional, over-reactive one, implying an attitude of smug superiority for his statements and reactions even when he doesn’t initially realize that they’re coming across in such an offensive manner. Further, without either of them really being aware of it, they’re both bothered by the gnawing presence of a statement from a widow at their luncheon that none of us really has command of our lives, that we’re all just “passing through.” Celine also haughtily generalizes a bit with the proclamation that young men are constantly driven by ambition to achieve something meaningful with their existence (a drive that doesn’t necessarily diminish with age, as she observes about Jesse and his constant writer companions, all still reaching for fame and enshrinement so as to negate the flimsy “passing through” personas of inconsequential beings) while women aren’t burdened with such obligations nor illusions, a contrast of idealists vs. cynics that re-frames the rationality/emotionality dichotomy that Jesse has been increasing alluding to all day (although her position has some empirical backing at least where financial traders are concerned; see http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2144548, 00.html—although you may have to be a Time subscriber to access this; I am, so I don’t know if I’m just permanently signed in or what, but if you can’t access it the print version of the article is Rana Foroohar’s “Why Some Men Are Big Losers” in the June 10, 2013 issue, p. 30). By the end of this talk-driven stroll they’ve shifted to more playful romantic bickering, reaffirming their heart connection as they joke about spending 56 more years together, enhanced by a waterside romantic sunset as this part of their lengthy verbal day concludes.
But all of this has just been prelude to the explosive drama that occurs during the last of the longer scenes, when that romantic hotel getaway quickly gets away from them so that the passionate prelude to a night of disrobing and lovemaking is halted by a call from Hank to tell them that he’s made his connection in London but forgotten a science project that Celine will mail to him. The fact that she didn’t even allow Jesse to talk to his son before hanging up is just the minor opening scratch in what becomes an emotional bloodbath as they clash over his ex-wife, his desire to be physically closer to his son, her desire to chart her own career in a culture and situation where she will have much better opportunities to thrive (while he can write anywhere, as she sees it), all of which then escalate into topics that haven’t yet been broached which essentially boil down to her feelings of being manipulated by his guilt trips and incorporation of their private lives into his art, his charges of her selfish irrationality, her counter-attack that he’s both a mediocre writer and a boring lover (“You’re no Henry Miller on any level!”), and their mutual inability to get past the anger that seems to constantly stem from the mere existence of the bitter ex-wife, whom neither of them likes nor respects but who has a pragmatic stake in Jesse’s life with her custody of Hank which ultimately results in him being unintentionally defensive of her, thereby throwing gasoline on Celine’s already smoldering fire with the resulting flare-ups preventing any possibility of a truce between these now battling lovers as their intended night of passion collapses into harsh recriminations and Celine storming out 3 times, the third apparently for good as she declares that she’s lost her love for Jesse. The deterioration of the evening is shown visually as we go from Celine topless and Jesse stripped down to his shirt and underwear, before the fateful call from Hank, to both of them putting clothes back on as the intensity of the argument increases, with the clear indication that had something like this erupted 18 years ago (just as likely, because 23-year-old hormonal anger can be just as volcanic as 41-year-old conditioned-by-long-term-relationship-repression anger; sadly, I speak from experience, about a first marriage that began at 23 but was pulverized a mere 4 years later) they would never have gotten off that train together in Vienna in the first place. Anyone who’s had to endure the unlocking of the “don’t-go-there” vault knows that when all of the vile bile begins to ooze out into the enflaming light of day the only result is a conflagration that even the well-seasoned California Forest Service could only hope to bring under control as aspects of the emotional life of the combatants are so withered from years of improper nourishment that they’re just like a tinderbox of dry weeds on a hillside, ready to burst into an inferno when the deadly spark is finally ignited.
Jesse and Celine choose to now explode toward each other; unfortunately, they both have plenty of ammunition and are equally armed with her viciousness and his self-importance clashing like pounding waves upon a rocky seashore, neither initially acknowledging defeat but both of them losing force or substance as the clash continues, even after her sudden infidelity-accusation toward him which he defiantly rejects in concept but never actually denies the reality of, further balancing their mutually-diminished stature in our eyes, leaving us wondering if separation—her returning to Paris with the twins and him moving to Chicago to attempt a better link with Hank—might not be the best result for these emotionally-exhausted lovers after all.
Yet, hope springs eternal—seemingly because Jesse is the one who goes to find Celine at the hotel’s seaside café but also conditioned by the reality that even if she doesn’t want to share a room with him it’s unlikely there’ll be another one available for her at this late hour (before midnight, don’t forget), the twins and the airplane back to Paris are awaiting them tomorrow, etc., so that some type of tactical reconciliation will be necessary, even if an emotional rapprochement isn’t available tonight. Here’s the point noted above where the response of a trusted friend to the conclusion of this film diverges from mine, so for the benefit of those who might have the same reaction to the ability of Jesse to even get Celine to talk to him at this point, let alone be moved by what he says, let me make my counter-argument in defense of how this film works itself out before the appointed witching hour. After unsuccessfully attempting to get Celine back into direct dialogue (no surprise, given how harsh they’d been before her final exit and his hesitant decision to go after her), Jesse launches into a spontaneous merge of recreating the simulated situation of beginning a conversation with a woman he’s just met in a public place (as with the train, so many years ago) and extending that into a time-travel fantasy where he claims to have journeyed to the future to meet with 83-year-old Celine, then come back to the present to give her a “letter” from her future self reminding her of how much she loved this unique guy (and how that night so long ago in southern Greece yielded the best sex of her life). Given that the “letter” he’s reading to her is all on a clean napkin she begins to appreciate his efforts, returning to her mock bimbo persona to feign fascination with his creative abilities at the fade-out, leaving the impression that for tonight at least a truce is called so that further negotiations can continue into the future. As my friend noted (and I’m not being euphemistic about my wife, Nina, here; she and I agree on the positive impact of what we saw in this film while this other observation comes from a close comrade who attended the screening with us), reality would dictate that after such brutal revelations that these two wouldn’t be able to even be in proximity to each other for a couple of days after such a collision, that there’d need to be a cooling-off period before any type of reconciliation, that this emotionally-powerful conflict has been falsely resolved in the name of a more hopeful ending so that fans of this couple don't leave the theatre in a mood ready to start their own brutal arguments.
I agree that may be the reality for many lives in such conflict, but I also have a different take: First, I’ll cite my own experience and note that in many of my past relationships situations did get that vicious or hurtful at times yet through persistent attempts at peace-making a softening of the standoff was achieved (it may not work for everyone like that, but in my life it’s not a total fictional denial of reality). Second, I’ve also had some situations where even after such mutually-destructive attacks I assumed that there was nothing left to work with in the relationship only to be surprised that the other person wasn’t ready to move on after all (at least not yet, although they all did eventually). Third, both of the previous Before … films ended on an ambiguous note (In … Sunrise all we know is that they’re supposed to meet again in Vienna in 6 months but we don’t find out until the second film that the reunion didn’t happen; in … Sunset we know that love has brought these 2 together again by chance in Paris, but she’s in a relationship while he has a wife and son back in the States so what sacrifices would they make to change those situations?), and I argue (seems appropriate where this film’s content is concerned) that this one’s conclusion is just as ambiguous. Sure, she softens to his creative approach to a ceasefire tonight, but nothing that they’ve been fighting about is resolved, only manifested. What will she/they do about that job in Paris? What will he/they do about Hank? These aren’t abstractions, they’re still difficult situations with no easy or right solutions so they may be back to loggerheads as soon as the return flight lands in Paris, yet we won’t know anything for at least another 9 years, if at all (maybe by then we’ll know if we’re ever going to get an Arrested Development film also, which better happen before another 7 years for them or George Bluth Sr. [Jeffrey Tambor] and wife Lucille [Jessica Walter as the “first” Lucille, of course, not that interloping “Lucille II” (Liza Minnelli)!] will be in an assisted-living facility where their nefarious scams will be much harder to pull off). Given how fraught with previously-unexplored complications the relationship is between Celine and Jesse—as well as how much love still draws these two together—I’d say it’s anyone’s guess as to whether their next episode will be Before the Judge in Divorce Court, although they would have to get married first “before” that scenario is fully functional. Finally, in a more snippy than serious way, I’ll also note that this film is called Before Midnight, so something needs to get resolved by the end of the long day that we’ve spent with Jesse and Celine—just as it did in their 2 previous time-pressured encounters—rather than them having the luxury of a few-days-cooling-off period. However, I’ll also note that my friend was impressed with the viability of the dialogue within this family feud, especially when the situation went past the boiling point, although the assumption was that much of it was improv on the part of talented actors. Actually, that’s not Linklater’s style; no matter how spontaneous the words sound or the actions appear it’s all carefully worked out in the scriptwriting process—where there may be a lot of improvisation as Linklater (or in this case his leading actors as well) goes through endless rehearsal scenarios to get the statements and the tone to reflect a proper sense of unrehearsed exclamations—because this is a director (going all the way back to his seemingly-random-but-well-plotted 1991 debut, Slacker [set in my old hometown of Austin, TX]) who ultimately wants his final preparation to be as ready for complete transfer to final product as did the master of pre-production (no “suspense” where that aspect of his work was concerned), Alfred Hitchcock, whose meticulous storyboards completely pre-visualized what would go onto the screen.
So, I’m back to my starting point with praising this script for its meticulously-crafted quality and impact, as well as stating my admiration for the actors who still had to go through who knows how many takes to finally get a proper reading of those well-structured “spontaneous” lines and the director who held all of this together so handily. As stated above, we’ll probably get even more powerful acting and more impressive direction in some yet-to-be-promoted films released during the typical award-season-onslaught late in 2013, but I’m secure that Before Midnight will still be on my Top 10 list for the year and that its original script will be a damn tough competitor to beat for the Oscar. While we endure the long wait to see if any of my predictions hold up (I wouldn’t hold anyone’s breath in anticipation, given my “successes” with the lottery and horse racing at the annual Alameda County Fair—coming soon to a racetrack near me), here’s a somewhat-appropriate song that takes us beyond Linklater’s arbitrary limit by going to “After Midnight,” written and first recorded by J.J. Cale in 1966 then virtually forgotten until successfully redone by Eric Clapton on his 1970 Eric Clapton debut album. At http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5Tiqv4Irjs you’ll find a duet of them playing at some unknown (to me) venue (posted on May 7, 2007), with vocals by Cale and guitar work by both. If you’d prefer to hear Clapton singing it then here’s his version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nl4tWRsOxV0 (recorded during his 25th Anniversary Tour on Sept. 21, 1988 at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA [very near San Francisco]; supposedly Mark Knopfler’s in there too, but if so he’s not doing much that I’m aware of). Given how long we’ll likely have to wait before we see the likes of Jesse and Celine again, I suppose you’ve also got time for me to refer you to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” (from his 1965 album of the same name) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KFYUJ63nk8. Just don’t stay up past your bedtime with all these tunes or you may wake up as grumpy as Celine and Jesse the next day. Or, if that happens, maybe we need to pass the Retsina a couple more times until your love comes tumblin’ down and begins to shine. Then, when there’s no one else around … well, the rest is up to you, but turn off the damn telephone!
If you’d like to know more about Before Midnight here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlOM8WnBafU (20 min. interview with director-cowriter Richard Linklater and actors-cowriters Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.