Since 1995 when Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise debuted, cinephiles have been measuring themselves (and possibly their partners) by how they interpret the romantic drama's willfully ambiguous ending. After witnessing the dreamy French girl Celine (Julie Delpy) and the spirited American boy Jesse (Ethan Hawke) flirt and cavort through an absolutely enviable spur of the moment romance, each viewer is left to wonder if this one-night stand will only be that, or if it will grow into a fuller and more complex relationship.
Will they meet six months later, as they promised to? That question was answered in the bittersweet follow-up Before Sunset, where the two reconnect years later in Paris, and rediscover the spark experienced their first night together. But once more Linklater and his stars left us with a telling question: will they or won't they stay together despite the obstacles of his wife and kid, and her living on another continent? It's said if you think they'll split up, you're a cynic. If you believe they'll stay together, you're a romantic. But the third chapter in this thought-provoking and heartfelt romance blurs the lines by presenting the true complexity that lies in long-term love, when lives are woven together for better or worse.
Set in Greece eighteen years after their first meeting, Jesse and Celine are vacationing with their children. They are together! But things are not as you might have hoped for these two charismatic lovebirds. Celine has the opportunity to take a major step up in her career, but Jesse's guilt over being so far from his now teenaged son urges him to consider moving his family with Celine from Paris to Chicago. It's the kind of situation where a compromise doesn't exist. Someone will lose, either Celine her dream job and her home, or Jesse the chance to play more than special event parent to his son.
Amid the glory of Greece's countryside, the pair chat about love, parenthood, and romance. But there's an edge to the conversation. The time for impulsiveness is behind them. They are saddled by children, work, and all the little obligations of adulthood. Amid this, they find it difficult to reconnect for an erotic night away in a Greek hotel. As their conversation goes from playful to tense, to barbed and finally gasp-inducing, we're forced to pick sides. Once more by the film's end we are asked to choose what the final moments mean. Are Celine and Jesse forever? Or is their time up? Most alluringly, it's a question with an answer that can shift depending on the viewer's mood, as each possibility seems totally tangible.
Delpy and Hawke share such an effortless connection so strong it's easy to forget Celine and Jesse aren't real people. Their performances are grounded by shorthand and physical intimacy that allows just an inflection of voice to paint a vivid backstory. Jesse speaks about a particular lawyer in a deep, stern tone, and in an instant impressions are made about years of custody battles fighting for his son from his first marriage. The lovers' extended climactic argument is convincingly gnarled with the threads of long-held fears and resentments that can surface in wincingly wounding verbal blows. At moments the fight felt so (and I hate this word in talking about movies, but it truly is the most apt) real that I turned away as if I were rudely eavesdropping on a couple quarreling in public.
While dialogue-driven, it never feels didactic or ponderous. The cast, which also includes Walter Lassally, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and Ariane Labed, radiates life, and the dialogue ebbs and flows in an entrancing rhythm that draws you in and carries you through the good and bad of this pivotal day. Watching the sometimes-heady conversations unfold amongst landscapes so lovingly captured by Linklater, you can practically sense the sunshine on your skin and smell the vegetation - like sitting in on a perfect summer picnic. In the end, the director has pulled off this tricky feat so perfectly I was left conflicted. Who do I side with? Jesse or Celine? Do I think they'll stay together, or no? Most of all, I struggle with whether I want to see them again or not. As ambiguous as Before Midnight's ending is, this seems the ideal way to draw the curtain on their story…and yet Delpy and Hawke are so mesmerizing as a pair that I would gladly turn out for still more of their time together.