At this point I can only add to the effusive praise that has greeted the release of Richard Linklater’s latest film, Before Midnight, with my own. So let me just say, here at the outset: it’s an extraordinary film. Given the limitations of contemporary distribution, however, it wasn’t until very recently that I was able to see it, at a weekday matinee near a local beach, where a few tourists and I escaped a hot afternoon to watch Celine and Jesse, now older and having finally built a life together, nearly decimate their union in a spiraling argument saved only by a willingness to enter Jesse’s fictional time machine, a graceful, near comic reversal that closes the film and provides a bit of relief to the tense build-up over the course of an afternoon and night together. Over the past nine years, we may have indulged our musings on Celine and Jesse’s future, or not, from time to time, but our recollections of them left off in Celine’s apartment, accompanied by the sounds of Nina Simone, a perfectly lovely scene not fossilized, exactly, but preserved in a transcendent, fleeting moment that could be accessed again through memory, through cinema. “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane,” Celine would say, over and over again; “I know,” Jesse would reply, ad infinitum. Such moments exist for us as talismans against future anguish, the small glimpses of beauty we return to, when overwhelmed with difficulties or simply bored. We forget about them just enough so that their recollection brings pleasure, and in this way, their lives seem to go on, even if their narrative really doesn’t—at least, not until now.
Nine years on, the parting song in Celine’s apartment has become prelude, another before to this new story, where, at the end of a trip, resentments built over a life together, carried silently, are suddenly given voice. Celine and Jesse rarely had difficulty speaking to one another, and perhaps that ease is here their undoing, as they trade the promise of an erotic encounter—however artificially prompted, as Celine notes—for something more real, to be sure, but far more frightening, perhaps no more so than for us. I found, as I watched the climactic scene in the hotel room play out, that my anxiety wasn’t only on Celine and Jesse’s behalf but equally revolved around the question, where would these characters exist now, once the film was complete? Would it be Greece, rather than Celine’s apartment, with both of them facing what was surely an irreparable rift? If Before Sunrise had closed on a note of romantic longing, with a kind of lovely melancholy, and Before Sunset had implied a more optimistic ending still, that Jesse would remain with Celine, then Before Midnight was approaching an unusually dark finale, as Celine left Jesse and found her way to a café table, to cool off or dwell in the hurt a little longer, alone. And thus might have ended the most recent and, at present, final chapter of our perambulatory lovers.
Only Jesse returns, and slowly, after much coaxing, the two take their imaginative journey, in the time machine, so that as the credits roll, we leave the characters in that café, continuing their discourse, and, we hope, their lives together. That’s the promise, if tentatively offered. And yet, as with the previous films, it’s one I don’t want to examine too closely. It was enough to be with them again, nine years later, and peer into their lives, even if that view revealed that they were not happy, exactly, but not unhappy, either—not exactly. That they were dissatisfied, and grateful. That they had gained in wisdom since we last saw them, but that their blind spots were even more apparent. That they were human, and real, and constructs, and fiction. That they might return, one day, to let us into their lives again, or that we might return to them, in later viewings, in memory. That all this was enough, for now, as I thought about Celine and Jesse, and as they retreated from me, too, while the credit sequence played out, their conversation, I hoped, continuing elsewhere.
David T. Johnson is Associate Professor of English at Salisbury University and the author of Richard Linklater (2012) for the Contemporary Film Directors series.