Movie review: Before Midnight (2013)

The unraveling of a relationship is hard to watch. In the end, it appears that the strands are being picked up and woven back together. Maybe. Maybe not. Nothing has been resolved. The reweaving is fragile and could easily unwind.

In this third movie about Jesse and Celine, we find them at age 41, having lived enough that life is now complicated. They have had to make tough decisions and live with the consequences. Like life outside of the movie, nothing is clear-cut, nothing is the best way forward, nothing is ideal. Everything is about compromise and the least worst path.

The backstory: Jesse and Celine appear together with twin girls of their own. Jesse divorced long ago, but Jesse and Celine did not marry. After two years in NYC, Celine moved back to Paris for the difficult birth of twins. Jesse followed. His alcoholic ex-wife took the opportunity to move herself and Jesse’s son from NYC to Chicago. The son that Jesse aches for. He wishes to be a part of his life. To protect him from his mother who hurts him to get back at Jesse.

At the start of the movie, the son is flying back to Chicago after spending several weeks that summer with Jesse and Celine. And then the angst restarts: the angst at not being a part of his son’s life. Should he (and Celine and the twins) move from Paris to Chicago? And then the fighting starts. The fighting that all relationships of any length endure. The themes are universal. But some of the topics are specific to the situation that Jesse and Celine find themselves in.

Swathes of the movie focus on this fighting, the hurtful comments made in the presence of others that turn into full-on fighting when they are alone. The fighting that is about nothing. And everything. The fighting that starts with one thing but weaves back and forth between themes that flow through their lives. Words of tenderness and love are interspersed with words of anger. Some topics are universal, such as the men vs. women debate. Women are the nurturers that care for everyone but themselves. Men only need to look after and often take time for themselves. Men believe in fairies that pick up the socks, make the salads, slather sunscreen on the kids. Other topics are unique to Jesse and Celine but in a generalized way, apply to any relationship (e.g., moving for the sake of the man means that the woman gives up her career).

In between the fighting are discussions à la earlier Jesse and Celine, seemingly like any other relationship where there simply isn’t the time for deep discussion after dealing with all of the responsibilities of life and family. Philosophical musings on the natural human state always being a little dissatisfied, perpetually discontented. Or musings on one’s reaction to the kids getting angry. One partner seeing anger as a positive life-affirming emotion. The other seeing it as a negative state to be avoided.

Lines sporadically popped up and grabbed me. Celine mentions a sentence that a coworker made with word magnets: Women explore for eternity in the vast garden of sacrifice. Ouch. At another point, Celine comments, in reference to the horrors that Jesse’s son is going through, “we all get dragged through our parents’ lives.” Just some lives are more messed up than others. And do more collateral damage. Or Jesse’s comment, “I orbited my entire life around you.”

Jesse alludes to the end of the previous movie with his comment to Celine that he loves her singing, her songs, her guitar playing. He fucked up his life because of the way she sings, a reference to him staying with her and leaving his troubled marriage—and his son—behind. Celine relates her deep fear: that men would turn her into a submissive housewife, a fear that may be deep down inside women in general. Or Celine’s reflection on their initial time together years earlier, when Jesse made her feel that she wasn’t alone any more. A feeling that with time she realized wasn’t true.

In between the philosophical discussions and kind words to each other, the fighting would inevitably return. Ebbing and flowing. Careening through past hurts and past problems to the present situation and back. Jesse and Celine eventually came out the other side. I think. I hope. How easy it is for couples in their 40s with several years, a decade or more under their belt, to walk away. To end the story at “I don’t think I love you any more.” Many do. Many relationships unravel and the strands are never picked back up and rewoven into a new patchwork. Perhaps there will be a new patchwork with a new movie. Or perhaps the strands will never actually be rewoven.

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