(Man and woman in love: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater's sublime Before Midnight. Image courtesy of Sundance Film festival.)
Sundance is a festival of many parts, the hundreds of titles on display often refusing any true consensus, but sometimes a single great film, like Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, Todd Haynes’ Safe or John Carney’s Once turns up and nullifies everything else.
There are other good, even better than than movies here and there, but nothing else quite measures up. So it was with Richard Linklater’s extraordinary Before Midnight, his rueful and blisteringly funny conclusion to his superb Before triptych. Of the Sundance generation filmmakers my own age, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Haynes (and several others of prominence), Linklater has produced the most effortlessly great, idiosyncratic and satisfying outputs.
I walked out of the press screening at Holiday Village believing the new work is the greatest work of the Austin-based independent. I was at Sundance in 1995, the year Before Sunrise opened the festival. I saw the middle piece, Before Sunset, the year of its release, 2004, and promptly named it the best film released that year. The movie has its international premiere Monday at Berlin and is also playing the festival at South by Southwest.
Linklater again collaborated very closely with the stars, Ethan Hawke, as the American novelist Jesse, and Julie Delpy, his French lover, the political activist Celine, on the script. Of the New Wave directors, Linklater seems the most indebted to Eric Rohmer, given the three films’ lovely, annotated digressions and masterly staged asides, capturing in movement, conversation and the occasional hesitation the hopes, heartbreaks and fragility of most modern relationships.
The generosity, the back and forth, of the script and the seamless integrated voices feels closer to Jacques Rivette. Even the names of the characters evoke Rivette’s best-known film here, Celine and Julie Go Boating. Like its two predecessors and many of the director’s best films, the Greece-set Before Midnight is structured around a very specific time frame, roughly twelve to fourteen hours on a crisply beautiful August day. The vibrant cinematography is by Christos Voudouris, who shot Giorgos Lanthimos’ Alps.
The movie is structured around four major movements: a prologue where Jesse packs his teenage son, about to start high school, on a flight home to Chicago, where the boy lives with his mother; a striking and beautifully sustained single-take, lasting some twenty minutes, of Jesse and Celine driving through the countryside; the couple having a spirited lunch with a group of Greek bohemians, led by a local writer of considerable renown who’s become Jesse’s patron; a two-part exchange, beginning with the two wandering the Greek ruins and ending with them in a hotel room.
Linklater's observational, liquid style has never been so fluid and graceful. It is not as pronounced and stylistically brazen as somebody like Tarantino, much less Haynes or Soderbergh, but there’s a controlled power and acute perceptiveness in how his camera records behavior, action and movement. The driving sequence, evoking the works of Abbas Kiarostami, is a good example, expertly contrasting light and space, subtly shifting angles and point of view, so that the conversation, funny, contentious, even angry in the pauses, achieves a startling lyricism and acute intensity.
What appears to be confining or static of bodies constricted in space, driving in a car, wedged in at a table or a cramped hotel space, Linklater and his actors continually find ways to improvise and take flight, Hawke through his wit and street smarts, Delpy through guile and sexy abandon. Delpy’s great in all three films, but she gives her greatest performance here, tough, fearless and sexually innovative.
In the movie, she’s the mother of beautiful twin girls, and she’s let her body slide a bit. Rather than hide in embarrassment or disappointment, she exults in it. In the hotel scene near the end, she performs an extended ribald bit topless, and she’s as light and nimble as air. She conjures a real presence, giving a voice, range and tenderness to the material.
(It’s topped only by the middle section, where she does a Judy Holliday-inspired bit as a “dumb blonde,” enthralled by the intellectual novelist.) Hawke, I know, is a very polarizing actor for many people. Given his long career working with Linklater and his preternatural ease opposite Delpy, he comes off here as lucid, sincere (and more often than not) agreeably perceptive.
The humor is piercing and poignant as what passes between the two are the most generous though difficult, even intransigent, of feelings and attitudes about love, fear and desire. Linklater’s experiments with time grant his single-space gathers a tremendous concentration and solidity. Linklater knows European art cinema, and the references here are vast, touching on the works of Maurice Pialat, Rivette and like Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, one of the supreme masterpieces of cinema, Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy.
I not only seriously doubt I’ll see a better English-language film this year. I would not be the least surprised if some day, this movie is considered at a level with the best of those films.