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Spoiler alert! There’s a ton of talking in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third chapter of a romance series that kicked off with 1995’s butterfly-inducing, first-love-blush Before Sunrise and continued with 2004’s when-real-life-kicks-in reunion Before Sunset. Now, star-crossed Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are in their 40s, have long abandoned unsatisfying relationships to finally be with each other, and are raising twin girls. He has a son from his earlier, acrimonious marriage, and at the beginning of this film, they’re at an airport in Greece as Jesse sends Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) back to his mother after spending the summer together, watching in angst as the preteen nonchalantly heads off to board.
Then Jesse joins Celine and their girls (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior), who are waiting outside in a car—and the logorrhea begins. Merely 20 minutes into the movie, during what feels like the longest car ride ever, the couple talk about parenting, work, activism, Facebook, the point when you know a relationship is at the beginning of its end. And you think: There are seriously 88 more minutes of this?
Their day continues at the expansive, bucolic home of Patrick (Walter Lassally), an elderly writer friend of Jesse’s, where a handful of couples also gather for a dinner party. Again, this is not cocktail chatter: Topics include the idea of self, soul mates, a deceased spouse fading from memory. Wine flows, but you still wonder if real people so easily slip into such deep discussions. (The alternative, of course, is that you’re just shallow. Pick your preference.)
Linklater has helmed all three films and co-written them with Delpy and Hawke based on characters dreamed up by Linklater and Kim Krizan. And although each of them serve up more dialogue in less than two hours than you and your partner have probably exchanged in two years, it all sounds natural—though maybe too clever at times—with words effortlessly exchanged while the characters are eating, walking, driving, and just about anything else you can do while still being articulate.
The dialogue’s naturalism springs not only from the script but from Delpy’s and Hawke’s performances. Developing a realistic character within the confines of, say, a workaday comedy or drama is difficult enough. Delivering lines that make the audience members feel as if they’re eavesdropping on neighbors or hanging around with a tight-knit group of friends is rather astounding. Your initial impatience with the wordiness fades, replaced by voyeuristic fascination.
It has been 18 years since Celine and Jesse first met, which means that their love isn’t all smiley faces and roses anymore. Their friends gift them with a childless night at a Greek hotel, and when they get there, the scene is long and their dynamic complicated—playful, then antagonistic, and constantly self-analytical—with one particular line likely to sink your stomach. But it’s exactly the stuff of a long-term relationship, alternately loving and hostile and incredibly complex. Earlier, Celine remarks, “The world is fucked.” Inevitably, as Before Midnight so accurately shows, so are love affairs, whether they manage to ride out the fucked-up parts or not.