Skip to main content

Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster.

Before Midnight
(2013)

Richard Linklater’s career has skewed from resolutely indie beginnings (Slacker) to disappointingly unselfconscious studio fare (a remake of Bad News Bears) taking in experimental posturing along the way (Waking Life). He always seems to have something on the go, much of which I’ve enjoyed (and a few I haven’t). As such, he appears to have a not dissimilar work ethic to Steven Soderbergh but puts himself into his pictures in a manner that wouldn’t even occur to the ‘bergh. While I’m not always up-to-date with Linklater’s pictures, I have made time for each of his Before trilogy and its been consistently interesting to catch up with his protagonists as each new near-decade passes.


These aren’t films without their flaws. For one thing, it’s still difficult to watch Ethan Hawke in anything and not have in mind the goofy Dead Poets Society kid. While Hawke may not be a whole lot like Jesse (I really don’t know) the mannerisms are his, and he carries them from film to film like great weight around his shoulders; he’s not really as cool as he’d like to be (it helps his credibility therefore that he has ploughed a non-Hollywood furrow). Additionally, if existential angst and philosophical daydreaming are perfectly realised in the stretched realities of Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, in these films they rarely rise above the level of energetic student discourse. It doesn’t make the discussion less interesting (one thing the films get right every time is the creation of conversation) but, particularly as time goes on, the same framing of conversations begins to sound increasingly on the affected side.


In context, that may suit parts of Before Midnight. In which we find Jesse and Céline (Julie Delpy) as a couple of a decade’s standing on holiday in Greece with their twin daughters. Previous romantic encounters have given way to a fully-fledged relationship, and with it love struck reverie has been replaced by the disaffected realisation of the multitudinous flaws each has. They resent that there is no time to be themselves or to reflect on the ideas that once were so essential.  Each becomes a projection of the dissatisfactions of the other and, where before we delighted in their conversations, now we are drawn to the chunks they tear off.  Jesse is weighed down by self-regarding guilt over failing to spend time with his son by his ex-wife (he lives in America), while Céline is increasingly intolerant of what she sees as Jesse’s selfishness and the growing feeling that she may no longer love him.


As per before, Linklater shares scripting duties with Hawke and Delpy. Their shared experience of parenting has informed Before Midnight, and the discontent that may be bred within the family unit is laid bare unstintingly. Their conversation is an altercation waiting to happen, first located on an extended car journey, then at a meal with friends where they are staying, and finally in and around a hotel earmarked for the final romantic night of their holiday (but which becomes anything but). Whether or not this represents the last legs of the partnership or they are able to salvage something from the wreckage, no punches are pulled in exchanges that range from petty to cruel to tearful. 


The expansive philosophical discourses of previous films are now brought down to earth by the accusation of pretentiousness on Jesse’s part (not by Céline, but from cheerful Stefanos played by Panos Koronis). Quite understandably, since the premise of Jesse’s prospective fourth novel sounds quite dreadful. When Jesse and Céline have the chance to pick up the flights of philosophical inquiry they one relished, it doesn’t ring true. One might argue that this is partly because they are going through the motions (Céline opines that she now barely has a minute alone to think during the day, and that’s usually on the toilet). But it also feels like an attempt on the filmmakers’ parts to nurture something of the appeal of the earlier installments, even thought the very environment (in both temperament and age) that fostered such thought has now gone. The dinner party is a particular failure here; not enough is made of the contrast between the fresh young couple Céline and Jesse once were and too much of the “wise” insights of Patrick (Walter Lassally may be a great cinematographer, but he’s a lousy actor).


There’s a greater problem, which may just be me, but I wasn’t able buy into the idea that Jesse and Céline have been a couple for all these years. All I could see was Hawke and Delpy pretending to be a couple that have been together for all these years. They lack a lived-in vibe; even estranged, we need to be able to see familiarity between them that has developed into Céline’s brittleness and Jesse’s standoffishness. The two actors are fine – great even – getting to know each other, but the conceit just doesn’t quite play here.


Nevertheless, the protracted hotel bedroom argument, moving from going-through-the-motions beginnings of lovemaking to no-holds-barred verbal fisticuffs, is riveting viewing. Only occasionally does staginess or studied moments intrude (the double returns of Céline to the room, as without a conversation there is no movie). I might complain that there is a tad too much emphasis on Céline being unlikable, but it is quite easy to see how Jesse’s ingratiating perpetual teenager side would inspire her ire (his time machine gambit may be designed to show his freeform invention, but it is as uninspired as Celine’s intentionally infuriating bimbo impression).


Before Sunrise didn’t really impress me all that much. I saw at the cinema on its release, and it was likeable but very slight. That didn’t change on revisiting it with the release of Before Sunset. In contrast, Sunset was a genuinely great movie. It managed to distill all that was nascent and half-formed in its predecessor, becoming something genuinely affecting and deeply romantic in the process. Midnight probably falls somewhere between the two. As a two-hander it is more impressive than either at times, but at its centre I struggle believing these two are in the place the film sets them. As expected, the trio are non-committal about a third follow-up. I have a feeling that, if it happens, the barbs of Before Midnight could give way to an aching regret and melancholy. And Celine and Jesse in their 60s might be more interesting still. Within such a context my doubts of “Were they ever a couple at all?” might sit more comfortably.


***1/2

Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.