Thursday, August 1, 2013

Before Midnight -- permanence of relationships

Director: Richard Linklater, 2013 (R)

Nine years on from BeforeSunset, Richard Linklater’s latest film picks up the story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) again. Here, this couple is more mature, less naïve, struggling to make their love survive the wear and tear of real life.

This third chapter is the best of the trilogy, a feat rare in cinematic history. And if you haven’t seen the first two chapters, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, you’d best stop reading here and go feast on those two before coming back to read this. There are spoilers that relate to those films implicit in this review.

This film starts in an airport in Greece. Jesse is putting his son, Hank, on a plane back to his mother, Jesse’s ex-wife, in Chicago.  He worries like an old woman about his boy’s travels, while his son takes it in stride. But when he emerges from airport and enters a mini-van, we see Celine there with beautiful twin girls. The ambiguous ending from the second film is answered without words.

On their way back to the villa where they are staying, the ancient Greek ruins that pass by outside juxtapose against their own relationship, which is now 18 years old. When Jesse starts fretting that he is an absent father, missing Hank’s pivotal transition from junior high to high school, Celine senses he wants to have them move to Chicago from their Paris home. With this intuition, she comments, “this is how it ends,” seeing their relationship beginning to fall into ruins like the stones in the fields. And herein is one of the key themes of this movie: the impermanence of love.
Like the previous two films, Before Midnight is replete with sharp, intelligent writing. Again the script was written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy working together. It is humorous one minute, biting the next, with a subtext that is so real that mid-life married couples will recognize themselves in some of these conversations. Once more, Linklater makes use of long takes of these two people in conversation set against the beauty of a European location. But this time he brings in some additional characters to  give depth and perspective to the themes.

Jesse and Celine are staying with Patrick (Walter Lassally), an elderly writer who has opened up his villa to several couples ranging in age from early twenties (a similar age to Jesse and Celine in the first film), to mid-years, to old age.  In a group conversation over dinner, they discuss sex, love and relationships. The youngest couple declare, “We know thar we are going to break up eventually.” Nothing is permanent. Their relationship is built on a foundation of romantic love that has a cynical side impregnated already.  Even Jesse and Celine seem destined to part.

Romantic love is not a sure foundation for permanency. Such idealism will surely flounder with time, as it has for our star-crossed lovers. But if the relationship is founded in Jesus, there is both hope for the present and the future. Certainly, time will likely wear away the unbridled passion of youth. But with the years comes a blessed maturity of walking together in Christ.

Marriage is supposed to be permanent. The two people usually covenant together with vows that end with something like “I promise to stay with you, for all the days of my life”.  Two millennia ago, before crucifixion, Jesus commented on marriage, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matt. 19:6) But when two people decide not to enter into a marriage covenant they are already preparing for a future splintering. And this will be exacerbated by the stresses of middle life and teenage children.

Here is the contrast between Jesse and Celine’s relationship and one centered in God. They are not married and have not made a covenant commitment to one another. Although there is a love connection, it is not rooted deeply enough. Even though Jesse shouts out, “I am giving you my whole life. I’ve got nothing larger to give,” he is still holding something back. His answers to Celine’s questions are masked in a certain hypocrisy.

After two decades this couple is showing signs of age; the wear and tear of real life has worked its damage. They are no longer dreaming about the future; now they are discussing the past and its impacts on the present. Their earlier choices have come back to haunt them, and regret has settled in.  Jobs and kids become central, each putting strain on their relationship and threatening to pull it apart. Indeed, though they have been talking to each other for years, they have really only been comparing schedules and agendas. They have settled into a comfort-zone where they know each other’s hot buttons and subtle messages, and can turn a simple word into the beginnings of a battle.

This is the second theme: the difficulty of relationships. While Before Sunset introduced this, transitioning from the perspectives on love from Before Sunrise, here it is highlighted in parenthood, especially that which involves custody battles. Certainly, life does get hard and relationships are difficult. But in a Christ-centered marriage relationship we learn to depend on the other and on Jesus, so when stresses conspire to pull a couple apart, they look to Jesus to help draw them back together. The storms of life can then bind them together in even greater unity.

There are two clear references back to Before Sunrise. In that film, Jesse and Celine met for the first time as they were disgusted by a middle-aged married couple arguing loudly on a train. Here, they themselves have become this middle-aged married couple, now arguing loudly in a hotel room.

In the second half of the film, after the lengthy dinner conversation, Jesse and Celine find themselves in a hotel away from their kids for a romantic and sexy night alone. But in a thirty minute scene that is just the two of them talking, they move from conversational foreplay to drawing battle lines in a knock-down, drag-out fight. One word, it seems, can spark a fire that burns a relationship out (Jas. 3: 5-6). Such is the undercurrent of smoldering resentment that can remain dormant in a relationship until unleashed by the subtext of a trivial comment.

The second reference is more subtle. In Before Sunrise, there was a scene early in their time together when they were sitting alone in a music booth listening to a vinyl album. They cast awkward glances at one another, wondering what the other was thinking and perhaps whether they should kiss. Here, there is a scene toward the end where they sit at an outdoor café table. Once again, they cast awkward glances at one another, wondering what the other is thinking. This time they are not wondering whether they should kiss. They are wondering if their relationship will last even beyond midnight. And Linklater leaves us, once more, with an ambiguous ending, causing us to wonder if this relationship will end here in Greece. Perhaps we will have to wait another decade for a fourth installment. It would be worth the wait if this excellent trilogy were to be continued.

This beautiful third movie in the series leaves us realizing that love takes work. Any relationship, especially a marriage, requires mutual sacrifice (Eph. 5:21). It is conceived by a single decision, but it is sustained only by a daily decision to remain committed to being together for the rest of life. Sacrificial love and lifelong commitment are two key ingredients for a successful (marriage) relationship.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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