“So, you got everything?” Jesse (Ethan Hawke) wants to be sure that his middle schooler son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is ready to board a plane at the Kalamata Airport in Greece. The boy, of course, assures him that he’s fine, as they walk to the gate. The camera tracks the two figures, sometimes from in front, sometimes from behind, and sometimes standing back to observe from them across the room. Their conversation is cryptic and also intimate, tense and loving, shorthand between two people who feel they know one another, and yet are repeatedly surprised — by moments of disclosure, reassurance, and occasional rebuff.
The rhythms are familiar if you’ve seen the previous collaborations among Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy. In the other two films, the walks and talks were shared by Jesse and Delpy’s Celine, as they sorted out whether to be lovers, in 1995’s Before Sunrise, and how to reconnect in Before Sunset (2004). Here, in Before Midnight, the discussion — the initial one, anyway — occurs between the son Jesse discussed before, the little boy he didn’t want to leave even as he wanted to be with Celine. Here again, Hank’s mother remains off screen, a shared reference, a source of tension, and a plot point, as her upset at Jesse — now divorced from her and married to Celine, with whom he is father to two perfectly adorable twin girls — serves here as a wearying, well-known, and still unseen difficulty.
Hank exits the film in this first scene, Jesse watching as he walks through the gate toward his plane, a kid busy with his own thoughts, a kid caught between two places, two lives, and multiple sets of expectations, a kid who reminds you of his father, whom you’ve seen much like this, wondering what’s next. Whether or not Jesse might recognize himself in his boy, you’re making connections, as the films form a kind of fabric for you, a series of memories shaping your experience, your understanding, your expectations.
It’s in this realization that Before Midnight becomes remarkable. Consider on its own, a look in on the couple now and still wondering whether they’ve made a right decision to remake their lives with one another, and perhaps more to the point, whether they can go on living with each other and with themselves, the film is probably not so surprising and sometimes can seem disheartening. As Celine and Jesse go on to talk, to share the final day of their Greek vacation with friends and their daughters, as they head off to a resort hotel where they’re supposed to spend a romantic night together alone, they reveal again their similar insecurities, their disparate distrusts, and their mutual aggressions, passive as they may be.
But whatever disappointments you might feel in particular scenes — over Celine’s lurching from nurturing to fretting, Jesse’s lack of lurching, a sudden resolution — the film, as one of three films, is an excellent culmination of an ambitious experiment. That ambition has not always been visible or, perhaps, intended outright. But it is always insinuated, guessed at, and imagined, from the moment that Jesse first suggested to Celine, in Before Sunrise, that she get off the train with him in Vienna, describing her choice as a form of “time travel,” a creative and emotional leap, premised on trust and also skepticism, an effort to conjure a future that might never happen, but also might exist as they speak. Their conversation then — and still — hinges on contingencies, on what might be or have been, on time in motion and paused, time going sideways, forward, and slipping away. It’s remarkable that the films chart the characters’ time, their sense of themselves in time, that the terrifically designed Before movies have evolved (and do evolve) over time, as contemplations of time. Aptly, so aptly it’s hard to embrace, that element here is not the same as it was before. Celine and Jesse are not facing an artificial, (and so, persuasive) deadline, before the end of a day or a night, they’ve made a decision to mark their time together. Now, even as they raise the possibility of rethinking that decision, the end that may be in sight is not a timeframe but a notion of self, or selves. As they now embody and contemplate middle age, as they worry about what’s been lost and also what may be lost, time is now a different dilemma. It’s finite in another way, not only about how the sun might appear from here, but how you live in a world on your own, too.
And it’s that other way, implacable and illusory, but also contingent on bodies and beliefs, that time moves Celine and Jesse and maybe more importantly, you. For you have seen — and also not seen, in the years between your drops in — what’s happened for them, which makes your relationship to their time more like your relationship to your own time. if time is a function of changes, in bodies and ideals and ideas, it is also a function of sameness, as you can only measure it by what you can know, what you might understand to be different or the same. This is an understanding unlike the one configured in other movies, which offer ends and resolutions, time frames as such.
The Before movies don’t do that. As they track time for Celine, Jesse, and you, they also don’t, they leave them periodically and so leave you to sort out your comprehension, to fill in. Whether you see the movies over 18 years or all in a row, on Netflix, you see time in motion. It’s so familiar, and it’s so strange, too. It’s kind of perfect.