Twenty years ago, back in 1994, Ethan Hawke starred in a movie called Reality Bites. He was Troy Dyer, a prototypical, angry young slacker with a high IQ, and without a job. The heroine of the film, an aspiring documentary filmmaker played by Winona Ryder, when she was still cute and didn’t shoplift, had a choice. There was Troy. There was Michael Grates, a young Ben Stiller as an executive at an MTV like cable TV channel called “In Your Face.” We all know who she would have picked in real life. In the film, she picked Troy, even though he was an abusive prick, nowhere as near as smart as the movie told as he was, and was probably destined to end up selling real estate, or living with his parents.
In 1995, Hawke starred in another, much better film called Before Sunrise. Here he played “Jesse,” basically Troy Dyer on his “junior year abroad.” Jesse, like Troy, was a prototypical young slacker. He wasn’t as smart as the movie told us he was. But, even if the heroine, Celine, a young Frenchwoman he met on a train in Vienna, wasn’t quite as cute as Winona Ryder, she was European. So he was nice to her. She represented “culture.” He also remembered that old American cliché that you should never talk about religion or politics. Troy, for all his faults, at least knew capitalism sucked. Jesse? I’m not sure what Jesse believed in. He certainly didn’t believe in “exchanging addresses.” He and Celine have sex once, get back on the train, and go their separate ways.
In 2004, during the very darkest days of the Bush Administration, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy released the sequel, Before Sunset. Jesse and Celine are now both in their early 30s. Celine works for a non-profit dedicated to fighting for the environment. She never talks about the environment, but she’s French so we knows she’s on the far left, and probably even reads Althusser. Jesse is now a successful novelist, having written a book about their night together back in Vienna. He’s on a book tour. Celine decides to look him up, and, even though he’s already married, and has a young son, we’re rooting for them to stay together, for Jesse to dump whatever American girl he married because, after all, Celine is French. Before Sunset ends before we learned what happened.
Oh let’s not kid ourselves. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were both critically acclaimed films that cost about 2 million dollars each, peanuts by mainstream Hollywood standards. Of course they got together. How else would there be a sequel? It’s now 2013. Troy, uh, I mean Jesse, didn’t end up selling real estate or living with his parents after all. He’s that rarest of individuals, not only a successful novelist, but a successful novelist who’s able to live in Paris, vacation in Greece, and commute back and forth to Chicago to visit his son and his ex-wife, all on royalties from a book that, to be honest, doesn’t even sound that good. It sounds like he won the lottery.
But he didn’t. As Midnight opens with Jesse, who still dresses like Troy from Reality Bites, taking Hank, his 13 year old son from his first marriage to the airport. Jesse and Celine, now married with twin girls, have spent the Summer on a retreat in the Peloponnese with “Patrick,” a writer even more successful than Jesse. We know he’s a great writer because he looks vaguely Mediterranean and has a British accent. Jesse’s son Hank seems destined to grow up into another Troy. He’s sullen, resentful, the child of a divorce. You can almost see his mother getting drunk back in Chicago— we never see her but Celine repeatedly lets us know he’s an alcoholic — and pulling aside the poor little boy as a captive audience. “Your father left me for that French bitch.” Jesse, feeling guilty, seems eager to please. He’s still Troy, still the American slacker boy man.
Back in the car, we meet Celine and the twin girls — who conveniently remain asleep so Jesse and Celine can fill us in on what happened in the past ten years. Celine, while never as cute as Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, still looks “pretty good for her age.” Let’s cut to the chase. The Celine of Before Sunrise is a woman from “my generation” who probably would have rejected me when we were both in our 20s. If I stalked her on Facebook — which I certainly would — and found the Celine of Before Midnight, my reaction would probably be something along the lines of “yeah. I’d probably still do her if I got the chance but wouldn’t feel quite so bad now if she rejected me.” Celine is not a happy woman. Why should she be? Her husband’s a famous novelist and a “great writer” who, as we realize during an excruciatingly boring dinner party, isn’t even very smart. Jesse is Troy from Reality Bites, if the world bought Troy’s hype. Celine knows it. She knows that if anybody should be the great writer, it should be herself. Unlike Ethan Hawke, who comes off like a mediocre actor reading lines, Julie Delpy has a certain gravitas. She embodies her part. Hawke only acts his.
If Before Midnight begins with Jesse eager to please his son, he spends the rest of the film trying to please his wife. Don’t listen to the critics about how this film “takes no sides.” Before Midnight is Celine’s movie. It’s Julie Delpy’s film. Before Midnight is about a woman’s fear of getting old. It’s about her dissatisfaction that men get shoved to the front of the line. It’s about her realization that the her culture, the same culture that declared her husband to be a great writer because he wrote what was basically a letter to Penthouse Forum expanded into a novel — “you won’t believe what happened to me on the train in Vienna” — is a complete fraud. We feel her seething throughout the long, boring dinner party, where Jesse floats ideas for the plot of his next novel that sound like they’d be rejected in a freshman year creative writing class. Celine may be politically incorrect. She uses the word “cunt” and theorizes about why women over 35 don’t get raped. But Before Midnight is a decidedly feminist movie. If ever a white male needed to “check his privilege” it’s Jesse from the “Before” series.
If I’ve sounded a bit cynical about Before Midnight up until now, rest assured I’m not. It’s a great film, but you have to wait until the final 30 minutes to realize it. The dinner party has broken up. Jesse and Celine are alone in a hotel room that was given to them as a present by their friends, some Greek couple who come off as Southern Europeans right from central casting. They start out trying to maintain the illusion that Linklatter maintained for the first two and a half movies, that they’re both living out a grand romantic life together, when, in fact, their marriage is nothing but a brief flirtation that’s been drawn out for two decades. Then they began to squabble, not in a balls out “I hate you” sort of way, but in the passive aggressive manner of two verbally sharp members of the cultural elite. But it doesn’t stop there. As the argument goes on, we realize something. Celine is now Troy. Yes, she’s got some job at a non-profit. She’s got two kids and an affluent live, but, at heart, she’s still a 20-year-old rebel trapped in the body of a 40-year-old mother. If Before Midnight never mentions politics — In Greece in 2013? — then it’s partly because we know how much Celine would love to be out on the barricades in Athens fighting the riot cops. But she can’t. She’s got twin little girls. She’s trapped in a loveless marriage with some loser American boy man who got lucky. Finally, she tells him she doesn’t love him anymore. The narrative that’s played out over the past 20 years, the perfect, perfectly apolitical love affair for the neoliberal age, is over. It’s been turned on its head. Celine is civilized, and French, so she doesn’t throw a lamp at his head. But we realize how deep her discontent runs.
Before Midnight ends perfectly. We certainly hope she’ll get on with her life and there won’t be any more sequels. I hope hey don’t draw it out into their old age, or, if they do, at least let Jesse get a clue and realize he’s been a fraud all along, that he should get a job teaching English, become a “house husband,” and babysit the kids while his wife finally gets to live her life.