In fairy tale movies, the credits roll at the wedding; prince and princess walk off into the sunset together to live happily ever after.
Real life goes on in the ever after, though. And outside of fairy tales, it's not always happy.
Jesse and Celine meet in 1994 in Vienna—young and idealistic. In Richard Linklater's first film in this trilogy, Before Sunrise, they share a "magical" night together, walking the streets, making love and talking, talking, talking, until time and circumstance force them apart.
They find each other again in 2003 (in Before Sunset), this time in Paris. Jesse's a novelist—and his first bestseller chronicled his night with Celine nine years before. He's married now, with a little boy. Celine has a boyfriend and is working as an environmental activist. But neither are particularly happy with their lives. And they realize that they still love each other. They quickly decide to once again act on that love … and perhaps they imagine that it'll be the culmination of the fairy tale begun nearly a decade before.
Now another nine years have passed. The two have been living together in Paris, parenting a beautiful set of twins. They're enjoying their last days of a six-week holiday in Greece, surrounded by good food and friends and experiences. At first glance, it would seem like they did find their happily ever after.
But the sunset has faded, and things are growing dark.
Jesse rarely sees 14-year-old Hank, his son from his now failed marriage. The boy spent much of the summer with he and Celine in Greece, but he's on an airplane going back to his mother now. Jesse aches with the pain of saying goodbye—the hurt of a childhood missed and fatherhood moments that never were. And he wonders whether he should move back to Chicago to spend more time with him.
Celine is considering stepping away from her environmental work and taking a higher paying but more demanding government position. At first she's unsure of whether she'd even like the gig. But when Jesse starts rumbling about moving back to the States, she decides it's her dream job.
The two spend what's supposed to be a romantic night in a Greek hotel, but when Hank unexpectedly calls, the evening turns bitter. He hangs up … and they begin to argue. Voices are raised. Curses are hurled. Questions and recriminations pile up like corpses. Their epic romance dances on the edge of oblivion.
It's Cinderella at the tone of the clock. The magic is gone. The coach has turned into a pumpkin. And the question hangs in the evening: Will Jesse and Celine still be in love when the next sun rises?
"This is true love," Jesse tells Celine. "It's not perfect, but it's real."
There's something praiseworthy in that statement. If we set aside the inherent problems in Jesse and Celine's relationship (and there are many), we can see a desperately honest portrait of union in crisis—not a crisis brought about by a sudden revelation, but by the drip-drip-drip of life. Love is a messy business, and Before Midnight, to its credit at times, shows us the mess.
Also setting aside the divorce that preceded him reuniting with Celine, we can admire Jesse for pulling out all the stops to patch things up with Celine. He makes it clear that he's in love with her and wants to spend the rest of his life with her.
It's unreservedly positive that Jesse wants to make up for past failings by really becoming a father to his growing teen. His angst over not being as available as he'd like to Hank gives both a nod to the wonderful power of family and the cost of our own decisions.
Jesse and Celine visit an ancient Byzantine chapel and look at the painted saints on the walls. All the saints' eyes have been scratched away—vandalism perpetrated when the Turks took over, Jesse says. Celine crakes an oral sex joke about Turkish men, then turns to Jesse in half-mocking horror. "I forgot you're a closet Christian!" she says, and asks if it's inappropriate to make such jokes in a chapel. When Jesse says yes, Celine clasps her hands in "prayer" and then salaciously pretends to lick them.
That sort of behavior leads us directly into this movie's sea of sexual content. Jesse and Celine are not married, but sex is a huge part of their relationship. They (and others) do it and spend a great deal of time talking about it.
During foreplay in a hotel room, Jesse pulls down the top part of Celine's dress and kisses her bare breasts. She then spends a long time so exposed, wandering around, talking on the phone and arguing. The two roll around in bed, panting and sensually grasping for various body parts.
They discuss and joke about past relationships, sometimes dismissively, sometimes with a measure of concern. Both have been intimate with other partners. Both are secretly bothered by the other's indiscretions. Celine insults Jesse's sexual abilities, using graphic descriptors.
More talk revolves around the male and female anatomy, sexual pleasuring, oral sex, pornography, condoms and futuristic virtual sex.
Because of Jesse's Celine-centric books (the second of which is said to be pretty graphic), Celine is exposed to readers in a way that few are. She jokes with her friends that if anyone wants to know what it's like to have sex with her, all they have to do is read Jesse's books. She's clearly uncomfortable when a fan of Jesse's asks her to sign the books.
Celine admits to Jesse that she has thought about killing herself. She says the only advantage of being over 35 is that "you don't get raped as much." And she talks about how her father used to kill kittens.
Crude or Profane Language
About 40 f-words and 25 s-words. One c-word. Milder exclamations include "a‑‑," "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑" and "pr‑‑k." Jesus' name is abused three or four times; God's name nearly 20. French swear words also surface.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alcohol is consumed at mealtime, and Jesse opens a bottle of wine in their hotel room.
"Still there," Celine says, as she watches the sun slowly sink into the mountains. "Still there … still there … gone."
The sun has served as a metaphor for Jesse and Celine's relationship for three movies now. And when it vanishes beyond the horizon here, the implications are profound. Beyond Midnight seems to ask, Are relationships like the sun, rising and then setting when the love is gone?
The question is explicitly raised around a meal that Jesse and Celine share with their vacationing friends. The youngest couple says they believe that as much as they love each other now, they're bound to fall out of love eventually and break up. One aged, widowed writer admits that he didn't always love his wife. "We were never one person," he says. "Always two." He adds that "it's not the love of one person [that makes living worthwhile], it's the love of life."
Celine also seems to gravitate toward that philosophy. She's not particularly religious or tied to social conventions, and we hear her wonder whether her relationship with Jesse has finally run its course. "I'm actually surprised we've lasted this long," she says.
But Jesse holds out hope that love—real love—can last, even if it's not exactly what we expected or hoped for. He's seen that sort of love in his own family: His grandmother dies while they're on vacation, and Jesse tells Celine that she didn't live much longer than her husband. After 74 years of marriage, it seems as though she was just "waiting to die" after his mortal departure. An older woman tells of how much she misses her own dearly departed husband. "I'm starting to forget him," she says. "And it's like losing him again."
Beyond Midnight is an honest, often moving depiction of relationship. But its depiction is still deeply flawed. The language is raw and shocking. Sex and sexual discussions are bawdy, flippant and coarse. And while the movie would have us pay this no mind, we can't forget that Jesse and Celine's relationship, as much as we're asked to root for it, is built on shifting sand: They're not married. And they pay lip service to the "rightness" of having an open relationship. Theirs is a relationship built on love … as long as that love seems beneficial to and convenient for both parties.
Month-to-month leases involve more commitment.
It's interesting that the couple's twins very much would like to see them get hitched. "I don't know why they want us to get married so badly," Celine wonders. She thinks it might have something to do with all those fairy tales they watch.
Those that, of course, end in happily ever after.
It's a concept that deserves a second and third look. Happily ever after is on one level a myth. Every marriage has its highs and lows. Every relationship has its in betweens. They require work, compromise and sacrifice—something that seems to particularly appall Celine. They require, most of all, commitment. We don't just commit to each other as a side effect of a crush. We commit to each other to better understand and experience what love—true love—is.
Commitment is what sees us through those dark, cold nights and to a bright and glorious sunrise. Jesse, I think, sees a glimmer of that truth. Is it enough? Not right now. But perhaps in another nine years it will be.