It seems unlikely, a talky relationship movie that became a franchise stretching over 18 years.
But “Before Midnight,” the third movie starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, proves it is not only viable but a lively exploration of the arc of a love affair. Insightful dialogue, strong acting and picturesque locations have built a loyal franchise for the films.
Director Richard Linklater co-wrote all three scripts, with Delpy and Hawke on the second and third. Each takes place in a 24-hour period. In “Before Sunrise” (1995), American Jesse (Hawke) and Frenchwoman Celine (Delpy) meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna and have a romantic day that each believes will be their last together.
“Before Sunset” (2004) finds them meeting in Paris amid Jesse's book tour. The book is about their romance, but Jesse has married someone else and has a son. Celine is an environmentalist living in Paris.
Now comes “Before Midnight.” Jesse has divorced. He and Celine are in a committed relationship, have twin daughters and live in Paris. Together with Jesse's 14-year-old son from the States, they are just ending an idyllic summer with a fellow author and friends on a Greek island.
The movie begins with Jesse saying goodbye to his son at the airport, and you can see that he's wishing he were more a part of the kid's life. The divorce was bitter, so that plus his living in France means time with the boy is limited.
The main body of the movie is divided into three long conversations involving Jesse and Celine, the first in a car from the airport to their hosts' home. Celine has decided to take a new environmental job with an unnamed French politician. Jesse cautions her against it and raises the possibility that they might relocate to Chicago so he can be with his son.
“This is where it ends,” Celine remarks. “This is how people start to break up.” The two spar about parenting, jobs, even over the first time they fell in love.
The second lively chat is over dinner with three other couples, each representing a different generation. Topics include the merits of friendship versus love, gender differences, Jesse's ideas for a new book — and things stay generally light.
But a parting gift to Jesse and Celine is a night at an inn, without the twins, and here the movie takes an unexpected turn into conflict. What's assumed to be a night for lovemaking turns into a knock-down-drag-out about the couple's differences, and especially about the idea that they would move to Chicago.
Stereotypes about gender, their nationalities, writers and environmentalists, roles in marriage, what has worn well between them and what has not — all are grist for an escalating fight that gets cutting and personal. Surprisingly perhaps, Delpy comes off as the aggressor most often.
Like the first two films, this feels real, including casual partial nudity. Also intelligent and admirably acted.
Whether you're up for a talky movie about a romantic relationship probably depends on whether you've seen the first two, though this one doesn't require that. Delpy, Hawke and Linklater's deceptively simple-seeming movie makes a fine antidote for typical summer fare, overflowing with action and driven by special effects. Here, character and dialogue reign supreme.
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Quality: Three stars (out of four)
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Rating: R for sexual content, partial nudity, language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes