“Before Midnight” turns one of the great movie duos into one of the great movie trilogies.

Before Midnight is the third installment in a sequence of films I wouldn’t hesitate to call among the greatest and most significant that I’ve ever witnessed. It may be far too punchy and direct to state this; an odd match for a film whose pleasures and nuances are so subtle and so muted. But the unrestrained joy and reverie I experience from Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy wholly warrants it.

But first: context. 1995’s Before Sunrise chronicled the meeting of two strangers: Jesse and Celine. Sunrise followed the two through Vienna as they, despite cultural and ideological differences, come to know each other, make love to each other, and finally, before Celine departs on a train, promise to reunite in six months’ time with each other. 2004’s Before Sunset catches up with the duo nine years later on a brief encounter in Paris. As it happens, their youthful promise was an unfulfilled one. Once full of exuberant opinions on life and philosophy, the two are more tethered in Sunset, both to their responsibilities (the duo never reunited, and so Jesse is now a married father) and tethered, too, to the more sober, fatalistic perspectives that time seems to impart. Sunset is among the most swooningly romantic films ever made and does so without so much as a kiss, as it hinges on one simple question — is Jesse going to throw away his family for one last shot at the love of his life?

Before Midnight answers this question and then some. It swiftly demonstrates a conclusion to the first two films’ key drama — yes, the two have ended up together — and then rapidly moves on to deeper, darker territory. Set on an idyllic Greek resort over the course of a late afternoon and eventual nightfall, Midnight is about the consequences of what happens when one abandons their responsibilities to pursue love and a new life. Jesse’s wracking guilt about leaving his now-teenage son for Celine, growing insecurity about the manner in which they provide for their two daughters, and suspicions of infidelity are only some of the topics Jesse and Celine fire at each other about as the film progresses.

Seeing one of the all-time great screen couples viciously go at it with each other over real-life neuroses and fears is one of the film’s great virtues, as well as its great pains. The famously conversation-heavy structure of the past two films, while reprised, actually serves an entirely different, darker function in Midnight — where with the first two films, it took us deep into the characters’ souls and viewpoints, here the all-too-familiar device is used to hurt. Shock. Distort. Everything light, bubbly and charming about its predecessors has been totally inverted, since the characters no longer seek to get to know each other, but rather, to prove each other wrong in a passionate series of arguments. While it’s a bold and unpredictable direction to take such a romantic series, it’s still shocking at points just how vividly their hurt becomes our own.

But Before Midnight is no hysterical, crazed sob-fest. Moments of genuine humor and warm observation are to be found at every turn of Linklater’s film, largely due to the efforts (acting and writing) of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Linklater lets much of their conversation unfold in unbroken takes, capturing both the luscious Greek vistas and unbelievably tightened craft of the principal actors. After a fascinating, checkered career alternating between bizarrely rapturous experiments (Slacker), ambitious failures (Fast Food Nation), mainstream comedies (School of Rock) and bona-fide classics (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), he’s more than earned the right to artistically indulge himself — yet in an all-too-unfamiliar turn, it’s precisely here where Linklater’s mastery of human drama and pared-down aesthetics are at their peak. His simple shot arrangements and uncomplicated camera movements don’t suggest an inability of higher complexity, but rather, the wisdom to know they’re not needed.

Before Midnight is the crowning achievement of a trilogy that only gets better with time; one that tackles terrifying issues (the longevity of true love, the onset of compromise and disappointment with adult years) in the simplest, most effective way possible: with people. Between people. Concerning people.

It seems to me that as the years go by and budgets raise ever-higher, movies are losing their interest in human expression and documentation. So when movies like Before Midnight, ones so achingly true, wickedly entertaining and above all, profoundly human come through your theater? Grab them and never let go. A+

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