It's got the talk – lovers having at each other until they get the final word. It's got the sex – the cozy familiarity of sensual nuzzling until things turn fierce and carnal. Whatever a modern love story is, Before Midnight takes it to the next level. It's damn near perfect. But it's also stealthy about playing its hand. What's modern about two lovers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who aren't teenagers – or even vampires? And sun-baked Greece, where the film is set, is ancient. Yet director Richard Linklater, who wrote the script with the actors, infuses the movie with the ardent, awkward freshness of a first kiss. What happens? Nothing. And everything. The dialogue sings, then singes. Even the laughs leave bruises. You might duck. I'm not him. She's not me. But, come on. Together, in all their tangled intimacy, Jesse and Celine are us.
Of course, this couple have a history. We catch up with them every nine years in an exotic locale (Austria, France, Greece). Before Midnight is the third movie, after 1995's Before Sunrise and 2004's Before Sunset, in which Jesse and Celine verbalize volcanically about their relationship. If we're lucky, they'll never stop. The Before trilogy is the defining movie love story of a generation. And Before Midnight, flush with humor, heartbreak and ravishing romance, is the best so far.
Newcomers to the party should know that the American slacker and the Paris beauty first connected in their twenties as strangers on a train to Vienna. Jesse is over the moon. Celine thinks he only wants "to meet a French girl on a train, fuck her, never see her again and have a great story to tell."
Jump ahead nine years, and Jesse, with a wife and son home in the U.S., has turned that great story into a bestseller. Now Jesse is in Paris on a book tour. Celine, an environmental activist, engineers a reunion to see if these thirtysomethings still have unresolved feelings to work out. You bet they do.
Before Midnight brings us into the here and now for Celine and the divorced Jesse. In their forties, with young twin daughters, they live in Paris. But they haven't married. In Greece on vacation, Jesse squirms with guilt about having to jet his son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), home to his mother. En route from the airport, Jesse and Celine can't deny the squeeze of age and responsibility. Says Celine, "If we were meeting for the first time today . . .
It's a slippery slope, and Before Midnight is full of them, prompting hilarious and cutting verbal fastballs. At a farewell dinner with other couples, they open fire on love in the digital age. This leads to a superbly realized battle in a hotel suite on their final night in Greece.
From first scene to last, Hawke and Delpy shine brilliantly, wearing their roles like second skins. And Linklater skillfully tracks the emotions roiling in the space between their sparring words. Though the award-caliber screenplay captures the fever and fleetingness of love, it is also indelibly generous toward human failings even when the comic darts draw blood. Heads up, Oscar, this one's a keeper.