Meeting cute, 18 years later
by David Lamble
I'm practically sitting in the clouds, actually in a lovely suite at the Fairmont, with two of my favorite indie-film folks, Austin-based writer/director Richard Linklater and sassy French provocateur Julie Delpy. This professional couple is in town to promote Before Midnight, the third segment of a romantic trilogy, after episodes one and two Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004).
Halfway through our three-way chat, Linklater (better-known for the Jack Black hipster comedy School of Rock, and Bernie, with Black as a queer Texas mortician) and Delpy (who's developed a following for her Two Days in Paris/New York comedies) explain why the American/French couple in the Before films are still not married 18 years after their "cute meet" on a Budapest-to-Paris express train. Our conversation, on the day Delaware legislature approves same-sex marriage, leads to a wry exchange in which the director confesses to mock horror about how the marriage-equality movement is putting a crimp in his 1960s-inspired relationship philosophy.
"Julie and I are kind of against marriage –"
"– except for gays."
"I used to say, because I don't like the institution, I'll only be married when everyone can be married. That was my line, but it's approaching soon, so I might be called on that."
In Before Midnight, opening Friday at Landmark Theatres, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are strolling through a paradise-on-earth slice of Greece on the way to a luxury-hotel suite reserved for them by friends from a writers' retreat. The couple are working themselves up for either the best sex they've had in years or the biggest brawl, or maybe both. Linklater and Delpy, who write the films with their acting partner Hawke, note that Celine has in some ways wielded the whip-hand in the relationship ever since the couple's unexpected reunion in the second film. In a powerful scene that is witty, insightful and profane, Celine pushes Jesse to declare whether he still finds her as alluring as he did on the train at 23.
"If we were meeting for the first time today on the train, would you find me attractive?"
"No, really, right now as I am. Would you start talking to me, would you ask me to get off the train with you?"
"You're asking a theoretical question. I mean, what would my life situation be? Technically wouldn't I be cheating on you?"
"I wanted you to say something romantic, and you blew it!"
Delpy once confessed that she sees some of her screen characters as dangerous critters, like female versions of Raging Bull 's Jake La Motta. Celine confronts Jesse inside a wayside chapel containing ancient Christian relics. Their free-ranging conversation confronts what once would be major taboos of what a well-bred woman should allow to pass across her lips.
"Okay, I'll never suck another Turkish cock. Oh, I forgot, you're a closet Christian. Is it okay to make blow-job jokes in church?"
Still later, as the gloves come off for real in the hotel, Celine uses Jesse's profession, a bestselling novelist whose first book mined choice tidbits from their first night together, to taunt him about his cocksmanship and reputation as a hot lover.
"The way you write, people think I've hooked up with this Henry Miller type. But you're so boring in bed, you're no Henry Miller!"
From a filmmaking perspective, Before Midnight is the most challenging segment of the trilogy, shot in extremely long takes in a fashion that violates the MTV quick-cutting style that has so dominated the last couple of decades of youth-oriented cinema. The film opens on a heart-tugging father/son scene. Jesse is sending his 13-year-old son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) home to Chicago and the care of his alcoholic ex-wife. At this moment we don't know if Jesse is still with Celine, only that he's an emotionally conflicted part-time dad who regrets that Hank's prime kid years are slipping by, with him stuck 4,000 miles out of the loop. No sooner does Hank get his boarding pass than we follow Jesse curbside to a mini-van containing Celine and their school-age twin daughters. What follows is a 14-minute, single-camera take of Jesse and Celine's car chat, catching us up on their last nine years as a couple. We're amused and horrified as they use Jesse's trepidation about his son's future, and a new job that would prevent Celine from following him to Chicago, to plumb the growing fissures in their bond.
Linklater concedes that the nine-year gap between the first and second films, and the second and third, was a lovely accident. "If we don't do another one, this feels fine as a trilogy. But we wouldn't be surprised if the same amount of time goes by and we think, 'Maybe Jesse and Celine are trying to express something about this new place in life.'"