Thursday, September 12, 2013

I'm way behind #4: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater has a knack for using actors I normally dislike, find boring, or enjoy only in small doses (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Jack Black, Marcia Gay Harden, Wilmer Valderrama, Bobby Cannavale, post-1991 Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, post-1980s Winona Ryder, Zac Efron) in mysteriously pleasing ways that bypass my usual issues with them, but he had to put all his English on it to make me stomach Ethan Hawke, probably my least favorite of all the actors Linklater has used. I don't know how he did it, but he did it. Hawke, an actor I find unbearably smug in everything except Explorers (he was a little kid), Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (his character was too desperate to be smug), and the last two parts of Linklater's Before trilogy (the Linklater voodoo) and who seems like a smug, arrogant prick in every interview and talk show appearance I've had the misfortune to see (especially his thankfully brief moments in Abel Ferrara's Chelsea Hotel documentary Chelsea on the Rocks), has a genuine chemistry with Julie Delpy in these films and knows this guy he's playing inside and out. Something wonderful and a little bit scary is developing with this series, which started as a slight but enjoyable twentysomething romance and picturesque Europe-as-seen-by-an-American slideshow and has become a melancholy, funny, sad, and tough look at aging, relationships, love, and the passage of time. (The European backdrops are still ridiculously postcard pretty, though.)
Three films, three days, separated by nine years. The couple, in their early twenties and just out of college, meet and fall in love in Vienna in Before Sunrise but have to separate when Hawke's character returns to the United States after his vacation ends. They agree to meet again the following year. That meeting, we learn in Before Sunset, never happened, but the pair reconnect in France nine years later. Now in their mid-thirties, they find they still have the same chemistry. Again, we're left with an open ending. Will Hawke stay with Delpy or go back to his family in the States? Before Midnight is a darker and tougher film than its predecessors. Hawke's and Delpy's characters are now deep into a long relationship, with twin daughters, and some major tension is simmering over Hawke's desire to move the family to Chicago so he can be near his son from his failed marriage with Delpy wanting to stay in Europe.
It's impossible not to be charmed by Delpy, but I pushed back against Before Midnight at first. This is a film about good-looking people with great careers living and vacationing in the most beautiful parts of Europe, and so much of the first part of Before Midnight is a glimpse into a fabulous life I'll never have. It seemed like a softer, more domesticated retread of the great second film, and a few of the long conversations pushed the themes a little too neatly. (I also don't buy Hawke as a writer, even though he is a published author in what we call "real life." Reading three pages of one of his novels in a bookstore convinced me he would never have been published if he weren't a famous actor. Maybe the terribleness of his actual writing makes me doubt the veracity of his being a critically acclaimed author in these movies.) An easy film to enjoy at this early stage, but a hard one to admire or respect. That soon changed. Things start to get really interesting when an almost tossed-off line of dialogue reveals that Delpy's and Hawke's characters still haven't married. The tension about the proposed move slowly increases, and the film's final third is one of the rarest things in film, an explosively accurate and honest depiction of a major fight between a couple with a long history. They know just how to hurt each other with the most carefully placed insults, and the hotel room war of words is one of Linklater's greatest moments as a filmmaker. It's also the best thing I've seen Hawke do. Delpy nails it, but I never had any doubts about her. This scene hurts, it's so true. If you've ever had a long, brutal argument with your significant other (and I wouldn't trust anyone who hasn't), you will recognize parts of yourself here, and you will cringe, laugh, and take an emotional beating. It's a rough watch, but it's full of humor, too, and it ebbs and flows and stops and starts and quiets down and explodes again in noise like the real epic fights do. It's a scene that turns an almost good film into an almost great one. Where will they be nine years from now?

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