“Before Midnight” Takes Series to New Level

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke star in Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke star in Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The exhilaration of intoxicating conversation tinged with romantic desire reverberates through Richard Linklater’s “Before” series. Taken altogether, it is surely one of the great romances ever to grace the silver screen. No other filmic franchise has explored two characters with such a profound depth of insight or arresting wit as they grow and evolve from picture to picture. It’s as close as narrative cinema has ever gotten to Michael Apted’s “Up” series, which checks in on the lives of its human subjects every seven years.

Linklater’s first installment, 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” was an ode to the impulsiveness of youth, as a smitten young man (Ethan Hawke) takes a gamble by asking a beautiful woman (Julie Delpy) to miss her train and spend the day with him. His boldness wins her over and their subsequent talkathon produces undeniable fireworks. In 2004’s “Before Sunset,” the would-be lovers reconnect nine years later while Hawke in on a book tour for his new novel based on his encounter with Delpy. Though the pair is older and less whimsical than they once were, they are astonished to find their chemistry intact. By the final fade-out, it becomes clear that the couple has no intention of drifting apart again.

Nine more years have passed in “Before Midnight,” which opens in Chicago on Friday. Viewers expecting another dose of the franchise’s familiar charm will have their expectations subverted, to say the least. As middle-aged parents straining to reduce the mounting tension of their daily spats, Hawke and Delpy are finally reaching a crossroads in their relationship. The consequences of their past choices have begun to catch up with them and threaten to dismantle their euphoric dream of a life together. Turns out rekindling old magic is only easy in the movies.

No effort has been made on the part of the longtime collaborators to soften or dilute the complicated obstacles facing these characters. We’ve grown to care so much about them that it’s excruciatingly painful to watch them tear each other apart in scenes of such searing honesty. And yet, this is what makes Linklater’s films so vastly superior to Hollywood’s glut of crowd-pleasers dispelling so-called wisdom about love. These pictures don’t aim to rake in box office dollars by presenting viewers with superficial closure or marketable sentiment. Hawke and Delpy are as involved in the creation of their characters as Linklater is, and they have proven to be brilliant writers as well as actors (both are delivering the performances of their careers). They are too invested in their own characters to dumb them down or make them more palatable for the masses.

What we get in “Before Midnight” is the uncompromising, richly textured result of the chance encounter that occurred so innocently in “Before Sunrise.” We are watching two people come to terms with the chasm that has grown between them while pondering whether it can ever be filled. No easy answers are summoned for them, and for that, we should be grateful. The wounded lovers are left clinging to the one tool that brought them together in the first place: the gift of speech. And it’s clear that they (and the audience) will have a great deal to discuss long after the end credits roll. Though 2013 is a mere five months old, I doubt I’ll see a better film this year.

“Before Midnight” opens Friday, May 31st, at Landmark Century Centre Cinema. At 9:30am that morning, I’ll be discussing the film, along with other new releases, on Vocalo’s Morning AMp show.

Before You See Midnight, A Quick Refresher…

This is where it all began…

…and this is where we left off…

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