Julie Delpy plays difficult in “Before Midnight” (2013)

8 July 2013

God, I loved this movie. Even with about 20 minutes of the most vicious, realistic argument between a couple I have ever seen onscreen, I found this to be a heartbreakingly beautiful, funny, and romantic film about relationships.

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If you’ve seen the previous films, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) — and if you haven’t, WATCH THEM IMMEDIATELY — you know that these are the talkiest movies you’re likely to see. In each one, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) wander around the streets of beautiful European cities talking — talking to flirt, talking to catch up with each other, talking as part of a relationship. I feel as if my own love life has grown up alongside them, and that each film captures something fragile and amazing (and a little geeky) about flirtation and love. The films get better and better for those of us who love talking and listening. Flashy they’re not; those viewers who require vampires or car chases or superheroes should just skip them.

Considering that this is just a film in which two people talk, how is it possible that I walked out saying, “How did they do that?”

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The film’s success rests on what Delpy can do with a difficult role. Why difficult? Because Celine is the more “difficult” in their relationship. Jesse has settled into the position of being affable, even-tempered — the mensch. But for Celine, his equanimity comes at a cost to her. He downplays or laughs at her worries, which makes her feel worse. It’s not fair, of course, to say that this is Delpy’s movie; this is a film about a relationship, and in this one Ethan Hawke has finally won me over to his acting.

What makes this film so remarkable is not simply that Delpy and Hawke inhabit those roles and ALL THAT DIALOGUE so effortlessly, but that their characters are so utterly believable — so much so that you find yourself taking sides, and (in my case, anyway) changing my mind about which one is more sympathetic or more “right.”

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Now, being a talky type myself, I’ve never been afraid of an argument with my partner. Not that I’d want to rehash some of the doozies we’ve had. But I figure that arguments are part of the nature of the beast in relationships. Better have a lot of little earthquakes than long silence and then a huge doomsday fight. I’ve never understood those people who say about their exes, “We never had a single fight until he/she just left me.” Mm hm. 

All this is to say that Celine is the one who keeps the little earthquakes emerging in their relationship. And I can see that some viewers will find her grating or neurotic. But I found her to be utterly realistic — neurotic, yes, but also exactly the partner that would have been formed by their relationship.

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Delpy is so good that it’s hard to believe she is not Celine. Neurotic, yes, but also wise to the whimsies of her longtime partner, and self-aware enough to know that it would kill her to let him get away with spinning out his whimsies without a response.

Watching them bob and weave during little moments — in their romantic moments, as they walk through beautiful parts of the South Peloponnesian peninsula that are as well-nigh close to heaven as you can imagine; but also in their horrible moments, as they full-on fight in their elegant hotel room — you witness something amazing: the real ebb and flow of real-life couples. That’s what amazed me more here than a complex car chase or martial arts battle: this is true choreography.

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Jesse calls Celine “the mayor of Crazy Town” in one of their uglier moments. When he says it, you almost believe it — even as the very sentence construction grates on your nerves as if it were your husband calling you crazy. Is there anything more tired than the “you’re crazy” ad hominem part of the couples argument? Which makes it even more impressive is that your sympathies bob and weave as they argue with each other; you see exactly why Jesse’s so frustrated, and Celine so touchy.

Yet just as with their previous film, it concludes with an amazing moment. It’s the simplest of narrative moves, yet so affecting that I can honestly claim that this is a truly romantic film. Like the final scene in the previous film, Before Sunset, it evoked emotions in me that I just couldn’t have seen coming.

If this film doesn’t pick up serious screenplay prizes and acting awards for Delpy — well, I’ll be confirmed in my belief that those prizes are bullshit. Again.

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9 Responses to “Julie Delpy plays difficult in “Before Midnight” (2013)”

  1. Servetus Says:

    I haven’t seen any of these films but maybe it’s time. Agree w/you re: Ethan Hawke, not thrilled w/much of his past work.

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    Hi –

    Before Midnight is playing at the Burns Court Theater (Sarasota’s local art house). Is it necessary to have seen the first two films in the series to fully appreciate this latest one?

    • Didion Says:

      I don’t think it’s necessary. But the payoff is so wonderful if you have seen them. Honestly, JMM — a movie fan as diehard as you might want to see them in order!


  3. I agree. A phenomenal film defined by not just that brutal fight but also by that lovely dinner with the dinner where all the couples of varying generations discuss the nature of romantic love.

    And I would see them in order, just to keep the ebb and flow of hope in its proper place in time.

    • Didion Says:

      So glad to hear you agree, Wendy. There’s something about how much the three films build on one another, moving from innocence to experience. Beautiful.


  4. […] Didion’s review of “Before Midnight” with Julie Delpy. […]

  5. Eva Larsen Says:

    as well, Hawke and Delpy seems so natural in their conversation with one another, and in their interactions with one another, you’d think they were making it up as they went along. They didn’t – every word is scripted. It’s just amazing writing, direction and acting. Director Linklater wrote the script for Sunrise (along with Kim Krizan, his frequent collaborator), while Delpy, Hawke and Linklater co-wrote Sunset and Midnight. Linklater effectively uses long tracking shots to follow his characters as the two walk and converse; so it feels as though we are right there, walking alongside. The filmmaking refuses to get in the way of the acting or the story. The connection between Jesse and Celine (Hawke and Delpy) is amazing; nothing is forced, everything rings true: their pain, their disappointments, their needs, their love – expressed in their eyes and faces as much as through their words.

    • Didion Says:

      I totally agree. It’s such a realistic portrait of a relationship in mid-stream, with the various built-up patterns and resentments. Gorgeous work … again, how did they do that?


  6. You are right – Celine and Jesse are the perfect foils for each other. She keeps him grounded and honest; he gives her space to be her philosophical, sometimes acidic self. Their fight sequence was excruciating for me also, as was Jesse’s self torture about his long-distance relationship with his son Something I love about the three films is the collaboration by Delpy, Hawke and Linklater in the development of the characters and writing of the script. This is a real love story with real lovers.


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