The third installment in Richard Linklater's saga of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) takes place in a beautiful part of Greece, on a Summer vacation, where we learn that these two have become partners, have two little twin girls and live in Paris. If you remember, they first met and fell in love on a train in Europe in Before Sunrise, when they were in their twenties, then about ten years of missed opportunities later, they met again in Paris, in Before Sunset. Now they have settled into middle age with undiminished rapport, but plagued with the myriad prickly issues of middle aged family life and the fear of getting older. To their credit, they still have a spark for one another and not all is lost... yet.
Jesse is a well known writer who has used his personal adventures with Celine as fodder for fiction in his books. It is not completely clear to me what Celine does for a living, but she is very vocal about her job dilemmas. The movie follows the couple as they talk a blue streak in this edenic spot. It is a funny, wistful and moving film, written by Linklater and the two actors.
Jesse has a teenage son from a failed, acrimonious marriage, and he feels pangs of guilt from living far away from him. Celine bristles at these confessions as intimations of Jesse to move the family to Chicago, which she refuses to do. The movie concentrates on this conflict and the sea of recriminations, true and petty, old and new, that it brings. In short, these two are married, even if they have never officially tied the knot. If you have ever been in such a relationship, chances are you will recognize a lot of the complaining as your own.
Linklater shoots long scenes mostly in real time with an easy rhythm and elegant, unobtrusive skill. A bravura one-take scene takes place inside a car, with echoes of Abbas Kiarostami, (the master of scenes in cars). The two actors don't miss a beat as they banter and argue while the twins sleep in the back. Hawke and Delpy's rapport has not changed, although at times they seem a little self-conscious and their dialogue a bit too arch. However, much of it reports quite accurately what happens in real life. The frustrations, the weird dynamics; the prickly humor between people who know each other's tricks all too well.
What is lovely about this trilogy, besides being an admirable cinematic project, is that none of the films, as focused on romantic love as they are, have ever been unrealistic. Their charm and poignancy derive from the fact that they avoid fantasy. It's human love, warts and all. If anything, Celine has become a bit of a pest and Jesse too much of a saint as he deals with her hostility and her neuroses. It is annoying that she has become such a shrew while he seems as placid as Buddha (if passive-aggressive, as she points out). I kept waiting for Jesse to put a stop to her shrillness, and at some point he eventually does, as she also brings some genuine anxieties to bear. The couple's bickering, which oscillates between charming and grating, escalates into a terrific all out fight, both lacerating and funny somehow, like many fights between people who love each other. There are nice, funny touches, like Celine storming out only to come back again and again, both to argue some more, and because it's clear that for all her protestations, she can't stay away.
Linklater knows when to linger on his actors' faces and even though there are long tracking scenes, he seems to get out of their way, so they can play. He doesn't call attention to the camera, just to his actors and their undulating beats. The only part that is too long and feels forced is a dinner scene that sets up Celine and Jesse among other couples at different stages of their relationships: a young, fresh couple such as they were when they first met, a couple slightly older than them, and two elderly people who have lost their companions. Somehow, waxing philosophical is not as interesting as eavesdropping on the couples' private conversations. In fact, any time the couple are alone together the movie feels sharper and looser than when they interact with others. The ending is quiet and bittersweet: the aftermath of fighting and reconciliation, the frail truce between two people that are trying not to drift apart. Somehow, we get a feeling that they are going to stick it out. It's all very romantic.