Rob Harmon’s recommendations 11/05/13

ROB HARMON’S PICKS 11/05/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picks“This is where it ends,” states Céline (Julie Delpy) early in Richard Linklater’s sensational new feature BEFORE MIDNIGHT, impulsively reacting to her long-time lover’s Jesse (Ethan Hawke) feelings of regret over having to live so far from his teenage son. “This is how people start breaking up.”

Before Midnight follows on the heels of Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) and BEFORE SUNSET (2004), both of which have charted the relationship of the French Céline and the American Jesse, through the first, romantic flushes of love as they meet and spend the day in Vienna, and then picking up again about ten years later with their unexpected reunion in Paris, awkwardly attempting to come to grips with their feelings, both past and present. Is Before Midnight meant to represent the end of that relationship?

The film, itself, presents no easy answers on this subject: just as this inordinately charming series of films has been constructed in an unorthodox manner it would probably be a mistake to make such an assumption. In fact, Before Midnight is open to many interpretations.

The action picks up at the tail end of a summer holiday in the southern Peloponnese in Greece: Jesse, now a well-established writer, sees his teenage son Hank off at the airport where he will return home to Chicago to live with his mother, Jesse’s vindictive ex-wife who has never forgiven him for leaving her for Céline. Jesse experiences deep pangs of guilt and regret at his having to live in Paris, so far away from Hank. These feelings continue on the drive back, with Céline and their twin daughters, to the villa where they have been the guests for six weeks of a prominent writer, Patrick (Walter Lassally), leading to a discussion between Céline and Jesse of their deepest priorities in life. Céline, Jesse, and daughters Ella and Nina are nearing the end of their stay and the various guests gather together that evening for a dinner in which all manner of topics, both mundane and metaphysical, profane and profound, are openly discussed, from relationships to time and the meaning of everything. Some fellow guests purchase for Céline and Jesse a room at a posh nearby hotel and offer to take care of the girls for a night in order to allow them a romantic evening together. What begins as a night of inventive and meaningful conversation and foreplay quickly devolves, however, as the two lovers’ increasingly embattled visions of motherhood, fatherhood, career, and resulting sensations of guilt come into play, resulting in a night of bickering, accusations, and, ultimately, some kind of an uncertain new stand-off or truce.

Actually, to call this Linklater’s series would be a major oversight of a few people, namely, Kim Krizan, Linklater’s collaborator on the screenplay of the initial film in the series and, most importantly, the stars and co-writers of the second and third films, Hawke and Delpy. It would certainly be appropriate to say at this point that the “Céline and Jesse” films belong at least as much to Delpy and Hawke as they do to Linklater. Their performances are exceptional here, from Delpy simulating a rodent’s orgasm or the fawning attentions of one of Jesse’s literary fans to Hawke’s pained looks of regret in the airport before his son departs. Similarly deserving of praise is Graham Reynolds, whose loping score perfectly matches the gait of this perambulatory film, and director of photography Christos Voudouris, whose lensing of the Greek landscape is gorgeous.

Yet it is impossible to overlook Linklater and marvel at what he has become: this shambling, insouciant hero of the early-90’s, grunge-era, Austin, TX indie film scene, now grown into one of American cinema’s most adult, erudite, and consistent voices. Céline and Jesse, like many of his best characters (see also SLACKER, DAZED AND CONFUSED, WAKING LIFE) are peripatetic, and do their best thinking on their feet—or, as is often the case in America, driving around in a car!—the camera merely taking in action and recording dialogue as characters move freely about. Before Midnight features many breathtakingly long and patient sequences and shots, such as the 13-minute drive back from the airport (all done in one take with a brief cutaway) and the final three-and-a-half minute shot, heartbreaking in its finality and implications. This is movie-making for grown-ups at its finest.

In a film whose characters ponder the tenuousness of the moment and the ephemeral nature of existence itself perhaps Before Midnight‘s greatest statement is made by Natalia (played by veteran Greek actress Xenia Kalogeropoulou in a scene-stealing moment) as she muses on the flickering memory of her late, beloved husband: “It’s just like our life, hmm? We appear and we disappear and we are so important to some but we are just… passing through.”