This review was originally published on January 26, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
If Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy do indeed give their beloved Celine and Jesse a break from reuniting every nine years in a different European locale to hash out their romance, no small comfort could be taken from the fact that "Before Midnight" manages to be an emotionally astute and tremendously enjoyable conclusion to this rather improbable trilogy.
In 1995's "Before Sunrise," the twentysomething Celine (Delpy) spent a night wandering Vienna with Jesse (Hawke), a stranger she met on the train, before he had to catch an early flight back to the States. They agreed to reunite a year later, refusing to exchange the least bit of information, and as we learned in 2004's "Before Sunset," Celine failed to join Jesse. He proceeded to write a bestselling account of that magical evening, and on the Paris stop of his book tour, they manage to spend just an afternoon together, wondering what might have been and could be.
There is just as much walking and talking in this entry, and the scripting by Linklater and his two leads remains as sharp as ever, if anything bolstered by the interim experiences of those involved. Beyond their enjoyable banter, "Midnight" skillfully acknowledges the compromises that make — and potentially break — a relationship without ever reaching the shrill volume that so thoroughly defined the midlife stagnation of last year's "This is 40." Linklater smartly keeps his camera out of the way initially, letting long takes of natural conversation unfold before subtly isolating the characters in the frame whenever they turn on one another.
The film is at its best when running closer to the real-time sensibility of "Sunset," despite a scale of characters and span of time more similar to "Sunrise." We meet couples younger, older and equivalent in age to our protagonists along the way, and the encroaching technology that has come to define modern romance is mentioned without becoming a crutch. Yet these portions don't hold a candle to a ten-minute drive from the airport that allows the couple to joke about their mounting friction, or the film's half-hour climax set in one room that's a masterstroke of vulnerable performances, emotional erosion and vitally placed touches of humor.
In a movie that could arguably stand on its own, the third act is a perfectly queasy inevitability, but as the culmination of two films and 18 years invested, it corresponds with the progression of titles and emotional maturity, following the hopes of "Sunrise" and regrets of "Sunset" with the suitable darkness of doubt and raising the stakes in kind. (If it put this young writer through the wringer, just imagine what kind of kick this will have for those already in similar straits.)
Perhaps the chief asset of this film, and this series, is the benefit of perspective. Linklater and Hawke especially seem fascinated with the notion, as they've been working on an unrelated project tentatively titled "Boyhood" over the course of 12 years' time. It's hard to realize what we've had, to know where we'll go, without being able to take a step back, and as Celine and Jesse step forward evermore towards uncertainty, the resonance of it may be best summed up in her native tongue: C'est la vie.
SCORE: 9.3 / 10