What Happens to Lovers When the Spark Burns Out? Long-Term Partnership in ‘Before Midnight’

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Midnight’

“I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing.” ~ ‘Before Midnight’

When Columbia Pictures released Before Sunrise in 1995, there was no plan to expand the narrative in future films. According to director Richard Linklater in a 2013 interview, Before Sunrise was his “little European art film” and he didn’t foresee that it would garner an intense cult following.

Over time, cinephiles discovered the film on home video, and the romance between twenty-somethings Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) resonated with many viewers.

The premise is simple: Jesse, an American boy, strikes up a conversation with Celine, a French girl, on a train, enjoys her company, and convinces her to get off in Vienna with him for the night. As they walk, talk, and share their deepest hopes, fears, and insecurities, they fall in love. However, their time together is limited, and they must return to their respective countries the following morning.

The film ends ambiguously, as Jesse and Celine don’t exchange phone numbers but agree to meet at the train station six months later. Will they stick to this plan and reunite, or will future obligations force them to view their night together as a faded memory for the rest of their lives?

This question remained unanswered for nine years, leaving fans to consider their own scenarios of what happened to Jesse and Celine. Optimistic romantics tended to believe that Jesse and Celine met up as planned, while jaded cynics weren’t convinced, and instead felt that they forgot about each other.

In 2004, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke unexpectedly answered this question with a sequel Before Sunset. It turns out that Jesse and Celine didn’t meet at the train station (Jesse showed up, Celine didn’t), but always remembered each other and never stopped wondering what their lives would have been like if they hadn’t drifted apart. Jesse published a book about their night in Vienna with the hope that Celine would track him down on his book tour.

Before Sunset focuses on their reunion in Paris at Jesse’s book tour, which presents them with an opportunity to rekindle their romance. Similar to the first film, they are in a race against time. Jesse must return to the United States and be with his wife and son in a few hours. Will Jesse let this second chance go by and get on the plane, or will he leave behind his wife and son to be with Celine? Like the first film in the series, Before Sunset ends ambiguously, and fans are left wondering what will happen to Jesse and Celine.

Nine years later, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke once again surprised audiences with Before Midnight (2013), the third and best film of the series. If the first film captures idealistic young love and the second film deals with the aftermath of that young love never amounting to more than one night, the third film wonders what happens when the two lovers have to actually sustain a long-term partnership.

In Before Midnight, we discover that Jesse decided to leave his wife and son to live in Paris with Celine. For nine years, they’ve made it work. They have two kids of their own, Jesse travels back and forth to the United States to spend time with his son, and they both have separate careers.

This time, they’re in Greece on a brief family holiday. They still have things to say, but the conversation topics are less philosophical than in the first two films, when they were getting to know each other. Now they discuss the day-to-day, like Jesse’s guilt for leaving his son behind and Celine’s uncertainty about her next career move. With life’s obligations, there isn’t as much time to speculate about the afterlife.

What emerges between Jesse and Celine is a long-term partnership like any other. They have the memories of their first romantic encounter in Vienna, but the youthful spark of that night has subsided, and instead, they’re left with a partnership based on familiarity. They know each other better than anyone else, and as a result, there are no more secrets to be revealed, no more surprises that await them.

As with most couples, an attempt to have sex leads to a bitter argument in the brilliant, brutal centerpiece of the film. Jesse and Celine reveal years’ worth of repressed feelings, the kind of fight in which both sides say things they’ll later come to regret. It’s the kind of fight that tests a couple’s commitment to the bigger picture, and the strength of each partner to overcome obstacles for the sake of the future. But for now, Celine storms out of the room.

After the fight, Jesse finds Celine sitting alone by the water and tries to make up. We get a sense that they’ve been here before, but that this particular fight opens up fresh new wounds. Could this be the couple’s breaking point, the moment when they finally decide to call it quits?

Not quite. In a last-ditch attempt at a romantic gesture, Jesse makes his pitch, and we’re reminded of the gesture he made to convince Celine to get off the train with him in Vienna so many years ago. He still loves her, and despite her visible anger and frustration, she loves him too.

Jesse and Celine overcome obstacles in ‘Before Midnight’

The film’s pitch-perfect ending is less ambiguous this time. We know that Jesse and Celine will stay together, and we know that in a few months, they’re going to have another fight, and a few months after that, another one. It took Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke 27 years to lead their characters to this inevitable destination, and it rings true because it’s a destination all couples are headed, if we’re not already there.

The “Before Trilogy” resonates because it uses a specific fictional relationship to make a universal statement about love and commitment.

The films explore the choices we make for love, and how these choices, while seemingly insignificant in the moment, have the potential to change the direction of our lives. It’s the choice Celine makes to get off the train with Jesse in Vienna. It’s the choice Jesse makes to miss his flight and stay in Paris with Celine.

These choices add up. When presented with an opportunity, we can either summon up the courage to choose love, or we can spend years regretting all the moments we missed.

If Before Sunrise is about the choice to pursue passionate love, and Before Sunset is about the choice to not take that love further than one night, Before Midnight is about the one final choice we all must make, and it’s perhaps the most difficult choice of all. It’s the choice to stay with someone after you know everything about them, after the spark burns out, after you have more yesterdays than tomorrows, and after you know exactly what those tomorrows are going to look like. It’s the choice for both partners to do whatever they can to rise above all the false starts and past failures, all the unspoken frustrations and unrealized plans, and try to be together for another day.

If it’s true that there are no guarantees in love and the passion of all long-term partnerships inevitably fades, Before Midnight offers a final message of hope: It’s better to have this than nothing at all.

Relationships only end when one person gives up. Before Midnight reminds us not to give up so easily.

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