“I guess when you’re young you believe there will be many people with whom you connect with, but later in life you realize it only happens a few times.” – Celine, Before Sunset
We last saw them nine years ago at her apartment in Paris. There she was swaying her hips, pretending to be Nina Simone, pronouncing her name “Nina See-Mun,” oohing and ahhing, purring “oh yeah, baby.” And there he was, lulled into an irretrievable stupor, sprawled on her couch as though his entire self from that day forward existed for one purpose only: to be turned on. Theirs was a dizzying attraction—the kind that insists on hypotheticals because, for now, facts are a nuisance. The kind that makes you carelessly certain and maybe even clairvoyant. The kind that, baby, makes you miss your plane.
Nearly two decades have passed since Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) fell in love while wandering Vienna in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. That’s roughly 6,500 sunrises and sunsets. In between, they reunited in Paris, with perhaps the most spine-tingling ellipsis of an ending—or, rather, non-ending—in recent movie history. Watch the final scene from Before Sunset on YouTube over and over and your body will develop an entirely new set of goose bumps in response to Hawke and Delpy’s voltaic energy.
In Before Midnight, the third installment in the series, we join them in Peloponnese, Greece. They ended up together. No longer near-figments of each other’s imagination, the lovers are now vacationing parents with twin girls asleep in the backseat of their car, having just dropped off Hank, Jesse’s son from his previous marriage, at the airport. Summer is over and Hank is returning to his mother in Chicago. It’s funny how a two-month tan fades so quickly at the airport, instantly devalued by all that fluorescence.
As Jesse drives away, Celine takes a video on her phone of the girls resting forehead to forehead. Delighting in that typically twisted way of hers, she notes that her napping daughters look just like conjoined twins. We’ve missed you, Celine.
We’ve missed you and yet, this new Celine is at first perplexing. Who is this woman with a gimmicky trompe l’oeil iPhone case making home movies? Who is this woman who, in the same breath, agonizes over a job offer and then whether they should stop and sightsee Greek ruins? She can’t be the same woman who once said on a boat in Paris, “I think the world might be less free than we think. That when given these exact circumstances, this is what will happen every time.”
And who is this doltish dad who fumbles through an awkward airport goodbye with his son? And why are they in a rental car? Strapped-in with seatbelts across their chests, Jesse and Celine are nearly unrecognizable. Those initial minutes of Before Midnight feel like a betrayal.
But that’s partly the point. While Jesse and Celine are not married, they are living a married life; the romance of the former often bested by the fatigue of the latter. Jesse no longer wears a leather jacket like the one that squeaked as they rolled around in the grass making out that first night eighteen years ago. His beard has lost the red Celine once loved, last seen as a memory in Before Sunset when “the sun was making it glow that morning right before [he] left.” It’s the kind of physical detail a lover claims, from which all future lovers are forbidden.
Furthermore, his son is growing up and has developed the sort of diplomatic poise children of divorce often do. It outdoes Jesse. It undoes Jesse. He is a father who feels far away. Yet, sometimes a father who feels far away when his family is next to him is just another guy who still wants what is far away—especially when his family is next to him. One gets the impression that he is someone who luxuriates in the idea of things, who still wears an old T-shirt no matter how tightly it fits. Or perhaps it’s just Hawke’s eyes; a pair of cool blues that perform on a single dial with varying degrees of “gaze.”
Jesse is a successful writer who has written two books about Celine. And Celine, well, she popped out two kids the one time they didn’t use a condom. Her career is at a turning point and she’s considering a government job instead of her non-profit work. But in the car, Jesse focuses on Chicago, which for Celine connotes buying peanut butter at the grocery store. It’s not a place but an outcome. It sets her off. Though unlike Sunrise or Sunset, the conversation no longer feels hypothetical. Decisions involve words like “uprooting” and “custody,” and soon, Midnight ends up feeling more like a curfew.
And yet, the movie accrues in the most wonderful manner. It sweetens. Something happens on screen, and that which was disorienting about this other Jesse and this other Celine entirely dissolves. As they walk and talk, Celine and Jesse befriend their younger selves. That breathlessness from the two previous films is restored. “If we were meeting for the first time today on a train, would you start talking to me?” she wonders to Jesse as an airy breeze does that something dreamy with her hair and with our doubts. “Would you start asking me to get off the train with you?”
Celine is the movie. Her nerve is resourceful and her questions are, for the most part, misogyny litmus tests. Near the end of the film she garbles up the pronunciation of “nurturer.” The word exasperates Celine and she makes a face—the face one makes when touching synthetic fabric on an especially hot day. It is Delpy at her finest and most exact, someone whose temper both anchors and buoys her. Jesse remarks that Celine does not mind her daughters fighting with each other because she considers anger a positive emotion. French women, she confirms, never fully abandon their moody, scrappy teenage selves.
She is undeniable. A pair of sleepy eyelids and tousled hair that softens around her face, a smile less toothy than when we first met her, one that, now, despite her strong-willed exterior, expresses her many inner contradictions. It’s a mournfully contented smile, procured by mothers, good readers, and those who unwittingly retain the individual emotions of a room rather than the apparent whole.
But soon, everything fizzles or ignites, depending on how you see it. Jesse and Celine fight. It’s a long and exhaustive match, and no topic is safe and neither person is immune. Celine storms out of their hotel room, leaving Jesse alone in her wake. He stares at her untouched steeping cup of tea, and one wonders if this is the last time Jesse will stare at Celine’s untouched steeping cup of tea. Is this that fight? Is she really done? It’s a shattering moment, and things have been said that cannot be unsaid. Marriage, in these hundred or so minutes, is the sanctity of sparring before sex, and sex before sparring, or no sex at all. It is the thoughtfulness that now and again is essential to thoughtlessness. Eventually, love can lose its meaning, sometimes restored only to say, “I no longer love you.”
Earlier, Celine and Jesse stare at the setting sun. “Still there, still there… gone,” she says. The moment is nostalgic in that oxymoronic way nostalgia can sometimes secure the present. Their smiles fade in tandem with the sun, and suddenly Vienna’s purples and pinks and Paris’ burnished yellows and cream all seem irretrievably pale in comparison to Before Midnight’s blues: the sky, the water, her dress, his denim shirt. A set of blue wooden chairs match the summer cottage’s blue chipping shutters. Or maybe the chairs and the shutters are green, even grey, but look blue. A young woman, much younger than Celine, who says “romantic” in the same musing way Celine once pronounced the word years ago, wears a blue bikini top. It shows through her white blouse at dinner as she listens intently to Jesse and Celine recount their story of us. Maybe we notice the bikini because Celine has noticed it too.
The sea is the bluest of blues. It cannot be photographed. Unlike rental cars or hotel rooms, or airport fluorescence, the sea quiets those tacit burdens so often revealed near a vacation’s end. It’s possible it deadens them too. But the sea’s cobalt vastness can also elicit love’s early days and that feverish space that once existed between a glass of wine and “Let’s just do it. Let’s get married.”
It reminds us of lovers who have yet to promise each other anything—who can be, if they like, always on the verge of promising each other everything. Lovers who are especially susceptible to Sundays, to hangovers, to sitting close and pretending to read, to playacting in general, to sunlight shining through a single bed sheet and the myopic blur of morning skin, to rest stops on road trips, to happened-upon beaches and benches and dive bars with regulars, to places like Savannah by train, Paris, and Vienna, too. And perhaps now, a place like Peloponnese, where kids fall asleep in the backseat and life-choices rival love, and the water’s blueness is all that’s left to talk about after.