Before Midnight

The final instalment in Richard Linklater's Before trilogy focuses on the travails of family life

From the commercial and critical successes of School of Rock and Dazed and Confused (perhaps the seminal slacker movie of the 1990s), to the innovative and visually arresting A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater has built a reputation as a filmmaker capable of turning his hand to most genres.

Yet, for all the evident eclecticism of his directorial resumé, Linklater’s Before trilogy may well be his greatest achievement. 1995’s Before Sunrise offered something original. A thoughtful, charming study of innocent love – of a single moment willingly grasped – it featured two startlingly good central performances by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

The delicate relationship between American tourist Jesse and French student Celine, born over the course of a night wandering the streets of Vienna, continued nine years later with Before Sunset. Here, again, Linklater produced a mature, elegant portrayal of romance blossoming in the most conducive of circumstances, as the pair re-connected in Paris after a long separation.

While that film concluded with an enigmatic, though uplifting nod to Jesse and Celine's immediate fate, this third entry in the trilogy, Before Midnight, is a more caustic affair. The travails of family life and domesticity have not quite undermined Jesse and Celine’s connection, but they have invaded it to an extent with which neither partner seems quite reconciled.

From Austria to France to Greece. Opening in Kalamata airport, Before Midnight presents modern Jesse as a successful novelist and doting father. Now firmly ensconced in Paris, he has just spent the summer holidays in in the southern Peloponnese with his wife, twin daughters and son Hank, who is set to fly back to Chicago.

Yet there is a tangible sense of longing within Jesse – a longing to be a stronger, more permanent presence in the life of his adolescent son. This is a contentious point, one which does not appear readily solvable, which lingers throughout

In the main, Before Midnight plays out very much like its predecessors. Long, luxurious takes and minimal editing have marked the series out as one in which the actors – Hawke and Delpy in particular – are trusted as collaborators. Very much invested in their characters, Hawke and Delpy are as comfortable playing off one another as you might expect, and their contributions to the screenplay are obvious.

In the opening sequence, for instance, they engage in an incredibly convincing domestic discussion as they drive from the airport to their holiday base. Taking in a number of relatively mundane topics, the scene is interrupted only by a single, brief edit. It is an impressive start, yet it never feels showy or forced, such is the confidence that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have in each other.

As the action progresses, it becomes clear, however, that Before Midnight is a larger, more ambitious film than either previous instalment – the chronology is more varied, the cast bigger, the peripheral characters more engaged than the fleeting outsiders of before. It all signals a perceptible shift away from the lighter, more personal tone of Sunrise and Sunset.

Tellingly, there is also a strained edge inherent in almost every scene. Jesse and Celine share a strong bond, yes, but they have also reached a stage in their relationship where each is beginning to grate on the other with increasing frequency. Both are keenly aware that each has evolved and changed over the years.

One imagines how their younger selves (as envisaged by Linklater circa 1995 and 2004) would perceive the undercurrent of creeping tension and veiled resentment that characterises their current state. Where once their meandering conversations would give rise to bouts of idealism, now they invariably descend into bickering.

In spite of its obvious merits, Before Midnight is not without its flaws. Linklater has always shown an outsider’s fascination with the iconic beauty of sophisticated European locales (formerly Vienna and Paris). Greece's awe-inspiring landscape is just as worthy of such attention, but here the cinematography plays second fiddle to the drama – backdrops are often, frustratingly, blurred and incidental.

Nor is this a mainstream drama, despite boasting recognisable leads. The dialogue is dense and erudite throughout – which will not be to everyone's taste – and there is not much of a plot outside of the family's fraught and introverted domestic situation. Indeed, the experience of watching Before Midnight may well leave the unprepared or casual cinemagoer as exhausted as Jesse and Celine now appear to be.

Before Midnight runs at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast until July 11.