To quote the watch adverts, here’s a timepiece that will last a lifetime: the Doomsday Clock. And the reason it will last that long? Because when it stops, so will your life. This is the figurative clock that has been maintained by a bunch of Chicagoan atomic scientists since 1947. The closer its hands are to midnight, the closer we are to nuclear annihilation. It started off at seven minutes to midnight. But now, as any paranoiac will tell you, it is two minutes further on. We are, in this one specific sense, five minutes away from The End.
Did Richard Linklater have this in mind when he named his new film Before Midnight? Probably not. This isn’t, in truth, a film about death by fission and fusion, but a simple middle-aged love story. He is Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, a freewheeling writer and romantic. She is Julie Delpy’s enigmatic Celine. They first met on a train from Budapest 18 years ago, before rekindling their relationship in Paris nine years later. But you probably knew that already: it was shown in Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). The difference now is that Jesse and Celine are married.
Yet, despite all that, the hands of a Doomsday Clock do sweep through this film. Previously, we saw Jesse and Celine walking hand-in-hand through cities such as Vienna and Paris, falling in love, as if they existed in a glass bauble. But here, everyday life has broken through. The first scene sees Jesse bidding farewell to his teenage son from a previous marriage. He and Celine now have twin daughters in tow. There are more people around their relationship, and pressures on it. ‘This is how people start breaking up,’ deadpans Celine, ‘…it’s ticking.’ Tick-tock, tick-tock.
Even the setting of Before Midnight speaks of doom. Our itinerant couple are on holiday in a Greece that’s made for adjectives: sun-dappled, historic, colourful, civilised, etc. But it’s still Greece, a country where plenty of simmering frustrations have boiled over in recent years. One of the locals says, ‘I feel I’m living the end of the world.’ And the return home doesn’t promise shelter, either. In the earlier films, Jesse and Celine’s romance was heightened by the likelihood they’d never see each other again. In this, they’re going back to France together, to job and custody concerns.
But if all that makes Before Midnight sound unremittingly grim, then rest assured: it’s not. Even during the heaviest moments, there’s always a sweet patch of levity around the corner. ‘Honestly, I sometimes feel like I’m breathing oxygen and you’re breathing helium,’ cries Celine at one point. ‘What do you mean?’ responds Jesse in a falsetto Mickey Mouse voice. They laugh, they bicker, they philosophise, they argue, they flirt, much like long-term couples do. And it helps that Hawke and Delpy, who helped write the screenplay, have such — yes — chemistry bubbling between them. It really feels personal.
Besides, Linklater’s in charge. And that, to an extent that’s often underappreciated, is a mark of quality. Like Steven Soderbergh, though better, he’s a director who can range across a whole heap of genres and styles, from the pass-the-camera-around experimentalism of Slacker (1991) to the by-the-book Hollywood comedy of School of Rock (2003), and almost always produce something worthwhile. His greatest talent, however, is for fighting the traditional dictates of plot — and winning. His films and characters drift and meander, but the result is rarely less than gripping. Nowhere is this truer than in this Before trilogy, his best work.
In Before Midnight, it all adds up to an extended sequence, spread across half an hour, which begins with Jesse and Celine tumbling happily into bed with each other, continues with the fiercest argument in any of the films, and ends …well, I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying there’s a gag about hanky panky-powered time travel. It looks nice and easy, but the craftsmanship is exquisite. It takes a lot of work to make something work as well as this.
And there, conveniently, is your moral. This isn’t a film about the decline of a relationship, but about its hard-won resilience in the face of everything else. So tell those American scientists they can set the Doomsday Clock back again. The end, for Jesse and Celine, is pretty far from nigh.