Alternating constantly between the mainstream and the independent side of filmmaking, veteran director Richard Linklater remains in fact better known for the "boy-meets-girl" diptych he directed nine years apart about the casual one-shot encounters between Frenchwoman Céline and American Jesse, portrayed in both cases by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. In their first meeting in 1995's Before Sunrise, their night in Vienna was a magical moment of discovery about two kindred souls in search of themselves, made all the more poignant for the realisation that this was really a one-off. Returning to the characters to see where they were nine years later, in 2004's lesser, more twee Before Sunset, now set during a day in Paris where the two reconnect by accident, opened the door to a possible fictional variation on Michael Apted's series of Up documentaries following the lives of a group of people at seven-year intervals.

     The temptation to wrap up the series as a trilogy must have been hard to resist, especially since the two films gained in stature as time passed, so Ms. Delpy, Mr. Linklater and Mr. Hawke went at it in the utmost secrecy until the shoot of Before Midnight was safely concluded. The result, surprisingly, is probably the strongest of the three films, putting Céline and Jesse, now a married couple with children vacationing in Greece, face to face with the daily grind of adult life and making a relationship work. As Before Midnight is essentially a two-hander, and the actors were also co-writers in the project (both Ms. Delpy and Mr. Hawke having become successful writers and directors since), there was a risk that the family mood of the new film might be far too close to Ms. Delpy's own marital comedies. But Mr. Linklater's "quality control" and the chemistry between the two actors give short shrift to that expectation, since it's exactly the push and pull of Céline and Jesse that has always moved the series forward, given added gravitas by the fact that the romance present in the earlier films has now given way to the demands of real life and the passage of time has taken its toll on the earlier fantasies - even though a number of formal elements recur (as the long walking conversations through the landscape followed with steadycam work).

     This leads to a whole other question that is essential for the film to make its mark: whether it can exist independently of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset or makes little sense without the previous instalments, since a lot of that gravitas comes precisely from the connection that filmgoers throughout the years have made with the two characters. Though that might be best answered by someone who hasn't been exposed to the previous films, as far as I'm concerned the fact that Before Midnight is much closer to what actual couples go through in their lives, with a strong sense of life lived rather than projected (despite the dreamlike Greek background, which has to register as some sort of irony) in a relaxed, unself-conscious but serious manner, makes it rather more relatable and engaging. Or, perhaps, adult - which is key to understand the Before... films' success, catching the audience at the same point in their lives that the characters are going through. Before Midnight never panders down to its audience buts asks them along for the ride, and it's a more rewarding one than you'd expect.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Mr. Linklater, Ms. Delpy, Mr. Hawke
Cinematography: Christos Voudouris
Music: Graham Reynolds
Designer: Anna Georgiadou
Costumes: Vasileia Rozana
Editor: Sandra Adair
Producers: Mr. Linklater, Christos V. Konstantakoupolos, Anne Woodhatch (Faliro House and Detour Filmproduction in association with Venture Forth and Castle Rock Entertainment)
USA/Greece, 2013, 109 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 out of competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 11th 2013


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