I watched Before Midnight weeks ago. I’ve been trying to review it ever since, but nothing clicked.
I could go on telling the story of how I chanced upon the movies. I could talk about the time I had a Before Sunrise time, and a Before Sunset time. Or about how refreshing the first movie in the trilogy was when it came out. But then, talky movies aren’t novel anymore. You could say Linklater movies have Tarantino-esque dialogues, only mushier.
But I think I’ll talk about arguing and fighting. Because, as my friend who watched the movie with me said, “I can’t believe I paid $15 for a fight I could have had at home”.
Jesse and Celine have been married for nine years now, after the events of Before Sunset, which ended with them making love for days and days. They now have twin girls. They are holidaying in Greece. It’s their last day there. Jesse’s son from his previous marriage has just left, and he is feeling bad about not being able to be there for him, teach him to play baseball. Celine’s just got a new job. Jesse can’t help wondering out loud about trying to be closer to his son, possibly by moving to the US.
They have plenty to fight about.
It starts off mellow enough, with the casual meandering conversations that made Before Sunrise so endearing. And then Jesse wonders out loud about the possibility of moving to the US. Celine will have none of it. And she says something to the effect of ‘Mark this day, this conversation. This is the beginning of the end, where our marriage started to unravel’. And that doomsaying attitude is what carries her through the rest of the movie.
Over dinner with friends, the cracks begin to show. She lightheartedly brings up all the things she now realizes she resents about her marriage. That Jesse uses her character in his books. ‘Oh, you should totally read This Time (his book about the Before Sunset set of experiences) if you want to know what it’s like to have sex with me’, she says. She doesn’t like how he casually brushes aside her worries. She thinks he has a thing for bimbos. She brings it all up to their friends in a “just sayin'” sort of a way. You can feel the pent-up resentment. The sort when too many little worries and insecurities in a relationship bother you, but none big enough to force a confrontation, but you need to be heard!
And how does he react? You can feel him feel awkward. He possibly doesn’t understand where she’s coming from on these. So he does what he does best. A big gesture telling the whole crowd he’s crazy about her.
She goes with it, but doesn’t like how her worries are made to feel insignificant under the carpet of ‘but he loves you so much, surely these little things don’t matter?’. In a few more minutes, they are all but openly fighting with each other. The older, still-very-much-in-love couple at the table change the topic.
Soon, it is time for them to get their one night away at a hotel, while the other couples watch their twins for them. “It’s a really nice walk to the hotel”, they are told.
Suddenly we are back in the Before Sunset scheme of things. They are relieved to be with just each other finally, no sound of children or other people. They talk about this and that.
Then she begins to ask him leading questions. You don’t even notice them at first, but her doggedly bringing them up again and again reminds you of the times you’ve done the same.
If he met her on the train today, would he ask her to get off with him at Vienna? Years of experience have taught him to say he won’t answer them. He obliges a little, though, to tell her he wouldn’t think he stood a chance, being a forty-plus father of three, and tries to laugh it off. She presses. He says he asked her when it mattered, and that’s all that matters in the scheme of things, and everything else is speculation.
She seems placated and they move on to other things. But you know better. You know the ‘Yes….’ is but a veneer beneath which the insecurity still bubbles. You know she’ll take the first opportunity to force a confrontation and force him to give black and white answers. She knows with a pistol to his head, he’ll give all the right answers, but what about when the stakes aren’t so high? Does he still feel as strongly and certainly for her he did when they first met?
At their hotel, she’s besieged by his fans asking them both to sign a copy of his book. She tries to say the character isn’t based off of her, but the fans persist. You feel her nakedness just then; how it must feel to have millions of people you’ve never met knowing you so intimately and being confident in their knowledge of you. Yeah, it was kind of cute when your husband wrote a bestseller and you were the star of it, but you didn’t know this was part of the package too.
The night starts off pleasant, with scenes that made a(nother) friend say ‘It has some nudity, but it’s a nice movie’. Then Jesse’s son calls from the airport he’s catching his connection from. She talks to him and hangs up without asking if he wants to speak to his father. She also says ‘Good luck with your mother’. At this point, Linklater is really pushing it. This moment feels very much like that SET Max ad about tense moments (You know, the one with a family where the wife has left the gas open (not on), and there are kids trying to fire a Diwali gun, and the mother-in-law trying to strike a match for the diya).
Sure enough, it erupts at once. They argue. Then she calmly takes a moment and tells him she doesn’t want to move because even if they do, he’s not going to get to see his son for more than thirty days, and it doesn’t seem worth uprooting their lives for so little. It smooths off.
Only for a little while, though. The damage is done. There’s enough unresolved issues in the air that demand a confrontation.
Shouting match. Which has Celine grabbing her bag and walking out at one point. But she returns after a few minutes.
And at this point, I began feeling disconnected with Celine.
There are real issues she has, where he’s off on book tours, and she had to take care of their children alone in Paris. But the phrases she uses…. she accuses Jesse of trying to ‘housewife her’. And a bunch of other feminism-oriented generic phrases. Which he easily refutes by saying you have a job, you live in Paris not the middle of nowhere, nothing’s being expected of you that no one else is doing, and I’m on hand to help you whenever you need, and I love you.
Now, I’m not discounting what she said. And real people do speak like that, yes. But where I would differ if I were writing this would be to voice her worries differently. Because your dialogues are not just ‘what real people would say’ here, they need to convey what she actually means. It’s not hard, and everyone has gone through periods of caring for their children all alone, but she doesn’t even get acknowledged for it. She feels alone in those times, relatively speaking. I’d have liked to hear that, and certainly didn’t expect Celine to sound like it was the first time she was using these sorts of arguments.
And then comes the argument to refute all arguments. Which invalidates every small firecracker thrown this way. Jesse admits to cheating on Celine.
Strangely, it isn’t given the appearance of a big reveal. There isn’t even a build-up to it, and there isn’t even any foreshadowing. It’s just another talking point to them.
Which didn’t go down well with me. It goes against the grain of everything you’ve known about Celine and Jesse over eighteen years. Linklater obviously wanted something big to end their argument and to show how much they still love each other when Jesse goes to find Celine and tries to win her back in the trademark cheerful positive can-do American way (and succeeds), but it really jumped the shark for me.
For so many years, there are these two people you’ve been told are made for each other and suddenly there’s a new one-night stand in the mix, and it comes up out of nowhere. Not once while they’ve been fighting has any of this even come up. Nowhere is he trying to overcompensate for his infidelity. It just doesn’t go well with the character of their relationship for either of them to take a one-night stand so casually.
You could have had the same effect by having Jesse say ‘Ok, don’t be like [his ex-wife] now’, with so much less gimmickry. It might even have been better to have that, because over the course of an hour, we’ve heard so much about how Jesse’s ex-wife ‘won’ the divorce by grabbing custody of their son when Celine was in France giving birth, and other terrible things. It would have been the final touch to indicate a crumble.
And what couple do you know takes cheating so casually? You sure know that even if she wants to believe it’s okay now, it’ll come back to gnaw her. She who can’t take him putting his son on higher priority than her will surely be more insecure about a cheating spouse. Maybe not that specific woman, but the constant wondering if your spouse is banging this woman who calls or that would drive anyone crazy. That’s the sort of revelation that takes months of couples counseling to resolve, not just one funny letter.
And if she’s letting it go just for the time being, it might have been smarter to just indicate so, maybe some hint of her gnawing insecurity. Or maybe another damning reveal from her which cancels this sin out. But no, we see none of that.
I still think my substitute is better.
That apart, Before Midnight is a slice-of-life movie. It makes you wonder, if a couple with a love so magical still struggles with communicating, what hope do the rest of us have? But then it takes you back to the times when you too felt the optimism of having met the perfect one, whose virtues were only matched by how comforting and adorable their vices were. Where you too felt so connected that you didn’t have to say anything to be understood, but somehow still fell asleep talking to each other, and woke up to check texts you missed from them when you were asleep.
You smile on the inside knowing that Celine and Jesse are just like you, and what you have is no less magical than what Linklater shows you. And then you remember the first time you argued, the thrill of testing your limits, and the fear of losing each other. And then you swore never to fight again, but things inevitably came up. You realize sometimes you asked for too much, and some other times, you got too little. But each spat inevitably brought you closer, helped you learn a little extra about each other you wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise. And the bickering kept you knowing you did have something worth fighting for…. and then you remember that other time it was all calm and placid from beginning to end – see, there was an end to that one – but you knew it didn’t show the same promise as when you had the freedom to explore your entire gamut of emotions for each other. And you smile knowing Celine and Jesse are doing the same.
And you bet the make-up sex wasn’t too bad either.