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Beyond the bickering

Romance still burns as Before Midnight's relationship reaches middle age

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"Do you have any idea what they’re arguing about?"

That’s the first thing that Jesse (Ethan Hawke) says to Celine (Julie Delpy) way back in 1995, in the opening scene of Richard Linklater’s cult romance Before Sunrise.

At that point, Jesse and Celine are just strangers on a train. Young, beautiful, flush with Eurail freedom, they bond over shared bemusement at a middle-aged married couple having a loud Teutonic tiff.  

Eighteen years -- and two films -- later, and Jesse and Celine ARE that middle-aged married couple.

They still don't know what the argument is about, even though it's now their own. In Before Midnight, the fighting veers with bewildering speed from small domestic details to life-altering decisions.

In this follow-up to Before Sunrise and 2004's Before Sunset, our Gen-X couple has grown up. The open-ended romance of one perfect night in Vienna (Before Sunrise) and one summer day in Paris (Before Sunset) has become the complicated reality of eight years of marriage. Celine and Jesse now juggle two careers, preschool twin daughters, Jesse's son from his first marriage, and the fallout of Jesse's acrimonious divorce.

And they are bickering, even on a glorious Greek holiday. When friends offer them a hotel suite for the night so they can get away from the distractions of small children and work, you just know that the couple is either going to have a huge argument or great sex.

Or possibly both.

With Hawke and Delpy closely collaborating on the script and Linklater filming it with unforced naturalistic ease, Before Midnight pulls off some of the most authentic real-time marital wrangling ever committed to screen. The couple's arguments -- or maybe it's one long-running argument, with variations -- are killingly honest and bracingly funny. They're also unexpectedly romantic.

"The first film is about what could be," Hawke has said in a media interview. "The second is about what should have been. Before Midnight is about what it is."

Turns out, the romance of "what it is" packs considerable poignancy.

For film fans who share roughly the same demographics as Jesse and Celine, who've been walking and talking alongside them since 1995, Before Midnight will exert an almost unbearable emotional pull.

First there's the inescapable fact that Jesse and Celine are getting older, visibly so. Hawke is still gamely trying to work the record-store T-shirt look, but he has a haggard edge. The beautiful Delpy is also aging, though in that Gallic way she is embracing her 40s rather than denying them. (Celine several times refers to her "fat French ass.")

Their love has also taken on weight. Now there's less musing about the future and more raking up the past. The lovers are often exhausted rather than impulsive, irritated rather than infatuated. Abstract philosophical dialogues frequently give way to pragmatic discussions about who picks up the socks on the bedroom floor.

This isn't the trembling, will-they-won't-they romance of the first two films. But it's romance nonetheless, deepened by years of time and trouble and talk -- especially talk.

In Linklater's endlessly chatty film universe, this is key: For all their arguing, Jesse and Celine still like talking to each other.

Maybe that's why Before Midnight is even better than its predecessors. By revisiting the same characters at nine-year intervals, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have been able to hold a long conversation about men and women, love and marriage. If the conversation has become more argumentative, it has also become more interesting, building on 18 years of shared history.

It's hard to say where Jesse and Celine will be nine years from now. This trilogy has never been big on certainty. Let's hope they're somewhere in Europe, maybe arguing on a train.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 D12

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