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PARK CITY - I called my wife tonight when I got out of the theater where I saw "Before Midnight," the new film by Richard Linklater that follows up his first two movies about Jesse and Celine, because that seemed like the most urgent thing in the world at that particular moment.
I was 25 years old when "Before Sunrise" came out. I was living with a woman, on my way to married, working as a screenwriter and making a living with my writing for the first time ever, and when I saw the film, it hit me dead center. I was blown away by the gentle, clever, romantic voice of the movie. Ethan Hawke is practically the default avatar for white dudes my age, an '80s survivor that has grown up interesting and seemingly intact, and Julie Delpy… well, come on. I grew up in love with European cinema. I certainly had my "OMG French girls" phase, and Delpy looks like the walking embodiment of it.
What really seemed dazzling to me was the way the script by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan did one of the things I find most difficult in writing: they carefully crafted something that felt utterly spontaneous. At the end of that film, I don't remember thinking, "Okay, now I want a sequel." I just loved it as a standalone thing, and it went into my regular rotation of films I adored.
My first time at Sundance, I barely slept, and one of the early morning screenings I went to was Linklater's "Waking Life." I was 31. I never did marry that girl I was with at the time the first one came out. We came close. We shared a life for a few years, and then it fell apart. Wherever she is today (it's been a long time since there was any contact), I hope she's happy and well. We weren't right for each other, and it had to implode. It messed me up, though, and I went for a few years without dating at all. I worked incredibly hard during that time, but the only relationships I had were casual ones, people I liked but that all seemed to enjoy the distance I needed.
I flipped when Celine and Jesse showed up in "Waking Life," and it was the first time I realized that I wanted to see more of them. It was such a wonderful surprise, and such a nice extension of their story, that it got me thinking about how great it would be to see them in a full film together again. I love Linklater's nod to "Psycho" in the beginning of their scene. I love the way Delpy, who was right at the height of her "Is she going to be an American movie star?" moment, barely has a French accent at all. It's a charming conversation, and I think you can either read it as Jesse dreaming of her or her dreaming of Jesse, or the two of them meeting in some private secret corner of a dream since they can't be together in person.
In 2004, I was finally married, celebrating a second anniversary, this time to a woman from another country, a woman with a radically different childhood and background from me. My wife is a beautiful woman, and when we met, I was in my thirties and she was still in her 20s. It was pretty much a done deal from the second date we went on, and the only reason we took any time before we made things official was because I was still dealing with my own baggage from my near-marriage.
"Before Sunset" was a beautiful surprise, and I thought Hawke and Delpy were even better in the second film. They captured a very difficult age. In your 20s, you are fearless and still sort of stupid and willing to try everything and hungry and raw. In your 40s, you'd better be settled into yourself, at home in your skin, aware of all the things that make you tick. But the 30s are a strange age. For many of my friends, there was a restlessness, a need for things to start coming together, that the second film captured perfectly. If anything I prefer the second film because I think it ends in such a smart provocative place, and because those performances exhibit real growth in both performers, something that we rarely get to see so clearly illustrated.
When we found out last year that the sequel to this film had shot in secrecy, I was 42 years old. I have children. My wife and I just marked our tenth wedding anniversary. She seems to be getting more beautiful while I've slowly transformed into the Chet-Monster from "Weird Science." There are days when I feel very old, and there are days where I feel like I'm just starting to figure things out, and that combination can be difficult to ride, especially when you pass your anxiety on to your loved one.
Tonight, sitting in the theater at the Holiday Village in Park City, I knew within ten minutes that this was going to be a worthy new chapter in this beautiful, humane series of films. Jesse (Ethan Hawke once again) is dropping his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) off at the airport so he can catch a flight back to Chicago where he lives with his mother. They're in Greece, where they've spent a summer vacation together, and it's emotionally difficult for Jesse to say goodbye to his son. When Jesse finally sees him go through security and walk off to his terminal, the look on his face destroyed me. I have a close friend who is going through a divorce and custody nightmare, and his time with his daughter has been radically curtailed as a result. He heads out to where his car is parked at the curb and before he can get in, he takes a look in the back seat, where his two young girls (Jennifer Prior and Charlotte Prior) are fast asleep, and when he settles into his seat, we see who's there, waiting for him.
And thank god, it's Celine.
They've been living together for a while. Jesse did indeed miss that plane nine years ago.and they've built a life together, and we see that partnership at its best and at its worst during this long woozy day spent at a retreat hosted by Patrick (Walter Lassally) in his home in Greece. These two still find themselves all tangled up with their words, verbose and yet incredibly guarded, and we can see that they're at another crossroads. Celine is sure things are ending, and Jesse is struggling with how he can convince her that he's just as much in love with her now as he was on that lazy day in Vienna almost 20 years ago.
What they do is less important than what they say, and as with the first two films, this is a screenplay to be savored, wise and humane and still just as inquisitive now as when this began. Age is starting to have its way with them, and Linklater doesn't glam them up at all. He wants to see every mile on them, and they both get tested even further over the course of this final day in Greece, and we see the way this little tiny footsteps in one direction or the other is going to make a difference in their lives.
This isn't as effervescent as the first two films, but that's only natural. They're at a different place in their lives, and everything we've seen up till this point has been the two of them dancing around each other and in this film, some cold ugly truth gets launched back and forth during their fights. No one knows how to hurt you more than the person you love most, and this film really explores what sort of work it takes to live a "Happily Ever After."
Ultimately, I think it concludes that the pain is part of the passion, and as he did in the first two films, he found the exact moment to wrap it all up. I hope Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater decide to try this again in nine more years. I would love to follow them through whatever else they feel like showing, and I suspect that once audiences lay eyes on this one and see how much greater it is than it should be, they'll be actively clamoring for the follow-up.
P.S. - "Before Midnight" somehow does not have a distributor yet. That seems unacceptable.
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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