Why Before Midnight gave me hope
Seeing the movie with my husband of 38 years was an intense experience. Let’s hear it for less zombies and mutants and more real, vulnerable characters at the cinema
How refreshing it is to watch a grown up movie for grown ups. My husband of 38 years and I went to see Before Midnight entirely on the strength of the reviews in last week-end’s papers. Neither of us, I am ashamed to say, have seen the two earlier films in director Richard Linklater’s trilogy.
Before Midnight – the third instalment – was our introduction to the story of Jesse and Celine and their ongoing relationship. I will be honest with you, being almost 20 years older than the protagonists, we’re no longer terribly interested in boy-meets-girl stories. Maybe that’s why we loved this frustrating, irritating, argumentative movie as much as we did.
Not much happens: there are a total of about six scenes, all completely devoted to various conversations happening in one single day. The couple are on holiday in Greece with their twin daughters and Jesses’s son from another marriage, and their sojourn is coming to an end. The day has its ups and downs, and begins with Jesse farewelling his son at the airport as he leaves to return to his mother, the woman Jesse left for Celine a couple of movies ago.
The pain, anxiety and, particularly, guilt Jesse feels about his son is the unspoken trigger of much that happens in the film.
A counselor friend once said to me that guilt is an entirely useless emotion. She said guilt was what you felt when you fully intended to continue doing what you were doing, but didn’t want to accept you were a horrible person (and indeed, we call it “middle-class guilt” a lot of the time).
Both Jesse and Celine are in the grip of various degrees of guilt and resentment, and most couples with any degree of self-awareness will recognise those two as the constant companions of any intimate relationship.
And that’s what was so powerful about Before Midnight. I recognised myself in both of the protagonists, as did my husband, and we were reminded of how we have defended ourselves and attacked one another over the years. Things I have said to hurt my husband were echoed back to me by Jesse and Celine, as we have both been known to march theatrically out of the house mid-barney, only to return a few minutes later to make another point.
The film touches on many of the themes of long lasting relationships – the difficulty and touchiness of sex, the complications of children and how much harder that gets when there are step children involved, friendship, one partner’s success, ageing, gender roles and the niggles, leaping-to-conclusions and defensiveness that can arise from unarticulated emotions built up over time. It is intense, but it’s never melodramatic nor does it strive for effect.
This couple felt and looked real. The film did not not explain them to us; we were expected to work things out for ourselves and to draw our own conclusions, make our own judgments. Celine and Jesse were not flattered by the film, either physically or emotionally, but nor were they demonised or condemned. They made me laugh, they made me ache, they made me flinch.
Ultimately, Before Midnight gave me hope regarding the possibility for survival of long term relationships between two strong but flawed human beings, but they also gave me hope for more mature cinema. Let’s hear it for fewer wolves, mutants, avengers, vampires, zombies and super-heroes and more complex, struggling, vulnerable human beings.