Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Winter's Tale: Before Midnight

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight (2013)

The warm breezes, poetic ruins and pure, sun-soaked hues of the southern Peloponnese at summer’s end is the setting for Before Midnight, the third in a series of films made by Richard Linklater and starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as the Franco-American lovers Jesse and Celine. (It opened in Toronto on Friday.) As far as I can tell, there are no fans of these movies, only devotees. Distinctly American in their frank, colloquial style, but inspired by the intimacy and spontaneous, kinetic realism of the French and Italian New Wave, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) quietly invited their audience to listen in on an unfolding conversation between two lovers that explored the substance of romantic connection. They meet (in Before Sunrise) on a train and get off together in Vienna to fall in love during a sleepless night before Jesse has to catch his next train, and meet again (in Before Sunset) in Paris, where Celine lives, on the last leg of Jesse’s book tour for a novel about their one-night love affair, having lost track of each other for nine years. In Before Sunset, Jesse was married with a two year-old son, Hank, back in New York, but the implication at the end of the film, which was set in real time in the ninety minutes before Jesse had to catch his plane back to the States, was that having found one another again, Jesse and Celine would stay together.

Before Midnight, which like Before Sunset was co-written with Linklater by Hawke and Delpy, takes up the story another nine years later to explore the effects of married life on romantic illusions. Together since that day in Paris, Celine and Jesse now have two daughters, fey and golden-haired twins (played by Charlotte and Jennifer Prior and beautifully directed; they're like kinetic poetry). Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), now a teenager, visits them on holidays. After dropping Hank off at the airport at the end of a six-week vacation at the Grecian villa of a prominent writer (played by the cinematographer Walter Lassally) where Jesse has been invited for a summer artist’s residency, and a lavish dinner with their Greek host and friends by the ocean, Jesse and Celine take off to a hotel together for their last night in Greece, a gift from their friends that comes with babysitting for the twins. In the hours before midnight – the witching hour, the hour that, in fairy tales and fables, can both break the spell and redeem it – the lovers talk, explore, flirt, make love and, above all, fight, in an attempt to find their way back to the intimacy that brought them together as hopeful strangers eighteen years ago.

The most obvious adaptation this film has had to make is that, in having children, Jesse and Celine are no longer the sole proprietors of their own narrative. Even the scale of time has shifted for them, they acknowledge at one point, to be measured by the growth of their children, whose lives become a map spanning New York (where Jesse and Celine first moved to be near Jesse’s son Hank) to Paris (where they have raised their twin daughters) to Chicago (where Hank’s mother has now moved, and which remains a possible but contested new home for the family), as well as an emotional map of Jesse and Celine’s evolution as lovers. (They have never officially married.) This movie sets its protagonists within a web of characters – their children, their friends of a variety of generations (including a young couple the same age as Jesse and Celine when they first meet in Before Sunrise) – all of whom create continuity between past, present and future, even as Jesse and Celine feel adrift within all the changes, distance and new defenses that the passage of time has wrought. One of the most memorable moments in the film comes right at the beginning, when Hank passes behind the security checkpoint and out of the film, a reminder of how quickly and casually the things we love can slip away: the look on Jesse’s face as he watches him go contains all the emotions his harried exchange with his son can’t express.

This almost haunted sense of transience Jesse feels when Hank leaves is just what he can’t make understood to Celine, who, as the critical acclaim and popular success of Jesse’s novels sends him on book tours and earns him university positions, has taken on the bulk of the child rearing and housework. Although she still works (she’s an environmental activist), she feels trapped in an anti-feminist melodrama largely of her own making. Bearing children has transformed her, as his separation from Hank has transformed Jesse; while Celine is consumed by the work of mothering as though the children – even Hank – remained extensions of her own body (the way Delpy carries the ample hips of her now more voluptuous frame expresses this beautifully), Jesse feels like he’s part shadow. (The novel he is writing, which he describes to the men before dinner, is a neo-modernist exploration of memory in which his characters seem to be, like Virginia Woolf’s in To the Lighthouse, almost disembodied vessels for pure perception.)

The chemistry of Jesse and Celine’s conversations in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset that combined the symmetries and balance of romantic comedy with the emotional free-fall of romantic drama has hardened under the effort of trying to sustain itself and turned them into adversaries of the most primal kind there is in romantic love between men and women. While Jesse creates life in his novels, Celine has birthed children, real human lives that, like the novels, have sprung from their love. The children seem to place Celine at a remove from her own creative life even as they force Jesse, incapable of the connection with them that their mother can claim, to retreat into his. Hawke plays Jesse as though his ruptured relationship with Hank gives him an almost physical sense of abandonment, a weightlessness that comes out in his sloping walk, both adolescent and weary. It’s the underside of Celine’s experience as she tries to come to terms with the still startling and half-disturbing function of her body to bear new life. Delpy's Celine is so tightly wound her entire performance is a high wire act, her notes of playfulness or contemplation turning without warning into a sharp fury she clings to as though it were her only possession. (She is so riveting here I couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she was on the screen, even in her scenes with Hawke.) Her precipitous moods, like her effortless sensuality, are what tether Jesse, but they also push him away; he's always catching up to her.

The movie becomes about the fundamental lack that childbirth can make both men and women feel, and how it can drive couples apart at the same time as the love they feel for their children sustains them. I’ve never seen a movie that gets at this conflict so lucidly, and so utterly without dogma or pedantry. It’s actually a revelation. And although this is the messiest and the most volatile of the films – Celine and Jesse’s fight, and its reserves of bitterness and rage, threatens to consume the film just as it threatens to consume them – the chemistry of the actors is more finely strung and the emotional depth of the writing even more daring. Of course, at this point, Hawke and Delpy are practically sutured into these characters. Like Andre Gregory’s stripped-down, rehearsal-set productions of Chekhov and Ibsen – the inimical Vanya on 42nd Street and this year’s forthcoming Fear of Falling, an adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder – which were rehearsed for years before they were committed to film, Before Midnight is the result of two decades of work, a luxury filmmaking usually just isn’t wired to afford. (Television actually is, but more often than not the emotional and psychological depth long-term character work permits gets absorbed by the dramatic redundancy of a serial medium.) Its performances are absolute feasts.

Hawke and Delpy in Before Sunrise (1995)
Before Midnight also has its dramatic lineage in common with the Andre Gregory productions. It’s no accident that the movie is set in Greece, the birthplace of western theater, and the thirty-minute argument between Jesse and Celine at the end of the film has the heft and fervor of some of the great marital and romantic fights of modern drama – Trigorin and Arkadina in The Seagull, or Laura and the Captain in Strindberg’s The Father, with its overtones of Aeschylus’ murderous Clytemnestra and Agamemnon in the first of his three-play cycle Oresteia. The play that serves movingly as an analog for the film is also about marriage: The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s late romance that is, like Linklater’s films, a sort of realist fairy tale. In the dinner scene, we learn that the writer Patrick's grandson (Yiannis Papadopoulos) met his girlfriend (Ariane Labed) when she was playing Perdita in an outdoor production of the play. Perdita, the lost daughter of the king and queen of Sicily who returns as a grown woman to her father, now a broken man, forms the dramatic arc of The Winter’s Tale, as well as its sense of time – the story plays out in the sixteen year scale of her life, just as Jesse and Celine describe their own sense of the narrative of their lives as shaped by the lives of their children. But the play’s magical denouement – a statue of the king’s wife who is sixteen years dead comes to life as the real woman – is perhaps the moment Linklater wants us to consider most, with its truth that love can be redeemed even when time cannot. The allusion suggests that the wintry nadir of Jesse and Celine’s love affair, belied by the ripe sensuality of the Peloponnesian summer, still contains the hope of benevolent restitutions. (Perhaps even one where Hank, like Perdita, will return to his shattered father.)

The movie starts out hobbling in its first scene – Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick doesn't bring much to his part, and the opening dialogue between Hank and Jesse comes out actorish and stilted. (The movie really begins with that shot of Jesse watching Hank go.) Aside from this, the only mistake I think the film makes is towards the end, after Celine walks out of the hotel room on Jesse for the last time. The camera pans over the remnants of their evening: the cup of tea Celine made herself, the barely touched glasses of red wine Jesse poured for the two of them, the unmade bed where they began to make love. It’s a device Linklater used memorably in the first two movies: in Before Sunrise, at the end, as the camera revisited all the places Jesse and Celine wandered together, and in Before Sunset as an opening conceit, the camera passing over the parks and cafés the lovers would soon fill with their presence. But it doesn’t work here, as a portentous suggestion that the detritus of their evening might be the detritus of their whole love affair, because the hotel room, hermetic and bleak, just doesn’t symbolize the spacious sense of communion these movies gives us. (Even when that communion turns on itself and gets vicious.) You’d have to pan across the ruins and the villa and its vegetable garden, where they spent the parts of the summer we don’t see, for that.

Delpy and Hawke in Before Sunset (2004)
That device doesn’t hold up as a visual touchstone for the series, but there’s a moment earlier in the film that absolutely does. It comes during the dinner at the villa, when in a discussion about romantic love the widow Natalia (played by the Greek film star Xenia Kalogeropoulou, who came out of retirement for this role) movingly describes her struggle to remember all the details of her married life now that her husband is gone. As she delivers this monologue that has the entire table in rapt attention, Linklater shoots her from across the table between Celine and Jesse’s shoulders, so that their profiles become a frame for this moment. It’s like the frame Jesse makes with his hands to take an imaginary photograph of Celine in Before Sunrise, an image that later flickers through an early scene in Before Sunset as though it has been seared on his memory all these years. “I believe if there’s any kind of God, it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me – but just, this space between,” Celine says to Jesse in Before Sunrise, gesturing with a finger between the two of them as they sit side by side in an alley at dusk. “If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but, who cares really. The answer must be in the attempt.” Apparently the companion of Patrick, the best friend of her late husband, and clearly still in mourning, Natalia serves as a reminder of how complicated and even contradictory romantic love can be. But she also occupies, visually and conceptually, “this space between” Jesse and Celine: the possibility of all that two people can know and share, and well as the despair that the most passionate love can bring. Her grief, in its poetic dignity, is the most poignant thing in the film, and the most hopeful. At the end of Before Midnight, nothing is resolved. But in these movies that find magic in two people seeking to understand one another, the answer truly is in the attempt.

Amanda Shubert is a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

1 comment:

  1. Making a movie with nothing more than smart dialogue and fine performances is a dying art, but Linklater, Hawke and Delpy remind us that it's a skill worth saving.