In an industry dominated by bloated action and comedy sequels and trilogies, Richard Linklater shows everyone how it’s really done.

When Linklater’s one night stand, romantic-indie film Before Sunrise bowed in 1995, few thought that in 2013, the story would still be unfolding. How much could there really be to a story about a chance encounter between a young writer, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and student Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train? Fortunately, a lot. Unlike most contemporary sequels which are only made due to audience popularity (AKA, financial popularity), the saga of Jesse and Celine grew organically out of the need for the three principals of the film to further the story of these two. Not because of a want from the audience to keep glimpsing the lives of these characters (although, that is also true) but because the characters began to take on a life of their own. Their suspicions proved successful in 2004’s Before Sunset, which found the characters meeting again at a reading of Jesse’s new book, which just happens to be about their first meeting (how meta), in Paris and purportedly finally sealing the deal by the end.

For many, that was all the story that needed to be told. The first set up that there’s a strong case to be said that these two are soul mates. And, if that is really the case, shouldn’t they have a happy ending? Before Sunset served to answer those questions, seemingly closing the door on the couple. So a third installment was met with even more trepidation than the second. Sure, people love these characters and want to see where they are now, but that doesn’t mean mere curiosity justifies an entirely new film. Yet the existence of Before Midnight itself proves the story isn’t over. By making a new film, they are telling the audience that their story isn’t over yet. Even if this is finally the end, it also makes a strong case for a fourth, and a fifth, etc. What is, and was, so special about the relationship of Jesse and Celine was that it felt so real. All three films are very dialogue heavy, in fact they’re almost nothing but dialogue, set against romantic, and to Americans, exocitic backdrops. Their first meeting was in Vienna, their second in Paris and now they find themselves on a family vacation in Greece. For so many that wanted, and even assumed, Jesse and Celine would live happily ever after, like most film romances, questioned the necessity to see their characters happily in love nine years later. But the entire point of these films is to show love in all of its reality, and that includes all of its mess and complications.

Before Midnight finds the couple, with twins in tow, vacationing in Greece as Jesse says goodbye to his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) from his previous marriage. It sets off a conflict inside himself, a paternal drive to be there for his son when, on another level, he’s already raising a family in Paris. Celine also has a dilemma as she is trying to make a decision about her career. As in the first two films, it’s the realistic dialogue that really drives the film and illustrates that while they are finally married and living the lives people in life do, they’re far from perfect. As Jesse laments his doubts as a father to Hank, Celine becomes immediately defensive declaring she doesn’t want to move to Chicago. Of course, this is before Jesse makes any mention of a move. Similarly, Jesse tries to be supportive of her career dilemma but can’t help himself from making snide remarks when he can. Like any long term couple, they bicker and they fight. But their fighting feels real. It’s about big issues, it’s about small issues, both are irrational at times yet they also laugh, kiss and touch each other and still seem truly in love. What the film does is to mine all of that and illustrate that there is no happy ending, at least in the way that most films say there is.

Instead, love is a constant battle between two people. It’s a constant struggle to find that middle ground where both can feel accepted and loved while still exerting their individuality. The moral of this third film is that no love story is ever over until one partner is dead. That may sound morbid but unless there is a formal break in the relationship, whether its a breakup, divorce or due to death, the story is still ongoing. It’s in that way that Before Midnight is a true triumph of film storytelling. For many people, Jesse and Celine are just as real as the actors who portray them, and if that’s the case, their story isn’t over until it is. Luckily for them, and the audience, they’re still here and they’re still struggling to find the answers.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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