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Before Midnight

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'Before Midnight': An excellent date movie
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

"This is how people start breaking up," Julie Delpy's Celine complains, with what seems like resigned fatalism, at one point after the first half of "Before Midnight," a marriage drama that also happens to be the third installment in a series of films co-starring Delpy and Ethan Hawke and directed by Richard Linklater. Hawke and Delpy first incarnated the characters Jesse and Celine in 1995's "Before Sunrise." In that film they played a young American and a young Frenchwoman who meet while Jesse is doing the typical boho-scruffy trek across Europe. The story saw them falling in love and parting in the same night (hence the title). The actors, and Linklater, and the film's audience, felt such an affinity for the characters that the filmmakers brought back Jesse and Celine for not just a cameo in Linklater's animated "Waking Life," but a full-blown sequel, "Before Sunset," in which the two characters meet again a decade later, fall for each other just as hard ... and then? That movie ended on an attractively suspended note, leaving open the question of whether the two older characters would leave behind the somewhat unhappy lives they stepped into after parting and take a chance on this love. "Before Midnight" opens not with a look at Jesse and Celine's life as a couple, but with Jesse seeing his teenage son from a prior relationship off at an airport.

Bing: More on Ethan Hawke | More about Julie Deply

Hawke's Jesse, slim and still sporting a full head of tousled hair and dressing, like so many of his generation, as if he's still in his adolescence, is nonetheless as trad a dispenser of dad wisdom as there has been in any era. "Team sports are important," he counsels his son, hitting a non sequitur-ish note. Getting to the nub of a different matter, his son bluntly observes, "It's because Mom hates you so much." This film is set in Greece, where Jesse, a successful novelist, has made a busman's holiday out of a British academic's offer to put him up at his modest villa for some writing time and space. The damage still sustained in a past part of his life is the first hint of trouble in paradise. Once Jesse returns to the car and we see that not only are he and Celine together, but they also have adorable twin girls, we get a further dose -- a double, call it -- of both glory and discontent. In a single-shot scene of the couple driving and talking as the two little girls sleep, and then wake, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke (the two actors are also credited co-writers of the film) enact a virtuosic mini-drama of how the expectations of parenting almost never square up with the reality of what your kids want, and when, and why one ought to never underestimate the memory of one's children. Still, the couple are together, still smart, still attractive, and clearly fruitful. The optimistic viewer will look at this scene and, if he or she was a fan of the first two movies, might conclude, "Mission accomplished."

Not so fast. As the movie goes along, the molehills of discontent, and miscalculations, and missed signals, and more, elevate into mountains. Playful adult-dinner-table banter with other couples, old and young, winds up peeling the skin off of layers of genuine resentment. An offer of a hotel room for an evening, away from their kids, is seen by Jesse and Celine as an opportunity to bring back that lovin' feeling; instead, it touches off an argument of practically volcanic proportions.
 
Did I say volcanic? At one point Celine evokes a movie she saw in which a feuding couple get a harrowing reminder of their mortality while visiting the ruins of Pompeii. The reference is to Roberto Rossellini's 1954 film "Journey to Italy," which raised the romantic melodrama to the level of metaphysics, and is a stone classic that Linklater and company are clearly aiming to match, quality-wise. "Before Midnight" comes pretty damn close (the one thing I think holds it back from perfection is arguably unavoidable, given the movie's rooting interest in its lead characters), and while some might call the picture a gabfest, its sense of cinematic unity is more astute than most movies containing three or four or 10 or 20 times as many shots. Even if that doesn't engage you (although I should mention here that Michelangelo Antonioni's 1961 film "La Notte" is also a pertinent cinematic reference point for this picture) the actual give-and-take between the characters is uncomfortably emotionally accurate, which means it will make an excellent, if challenging, date movie for both new and old couples.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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