Before Midnight: Unevenly Matched

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Jul 11th, 2013

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Before Midnight offers a long-awaited update on the lives of Céline and Jesse, the couple who met on a train to Vienna in the 90s, then came together again in Paris the 2000s after Jesse wrote a book about their brief encounter. The second film, Before Sunset, ended ambiguously, with the possibility that Jesse might abandon his family in the US and stay in Paris with Céline, a woman he’d never been able to forget since that one night nearly ten years before. Before Midnight confirms that Jesse did take that gigantic step, and presents the consequences.

The first two films in the Before saga developed a cult following for their witty and flirtatious repartee. The films were unabashedly talky, but the dialogue was so well written that the audience didn’t lose interest for a moment. The Parisian Céline came across as marginally superior to Jesse who, for all his literary aspirations, still fit the stereotype of the unpretentious American. The gender dynamic, too, was familiar from as far back as the screwball comedy, where the ambitious and clever woman proves more than a match for her male opponent in banter.

Of course, the relaxed conversational meandering of Richard Linklater’s films were a world away from the machine-gunning exchanges of the 1940s. Now, in his most recent instalment, the rate of exchange has accelerated, and ideas about gender also seem to have regressed. The film starts off well, with a moving farewell scene between Jesse and his son from his broken marriage. It then segues smoothly into the first conversation between Jesse and Céline as they drive back from the airport in Greece where they are on holiday. She stresses over a decision about a job, then they start joking about family life as their twin daughters snooze in the back seat. Here, as well as at the start of their major disagreement scene later in the film, there are moments when both male and female audience members will recognise themselves: Céline’s frustration with a world that still limits women’s careers aspirations instead of supporting them, Jesse’s brusque attempts to shut down a discussion when he feels it’s getting out of hand. These are crystallising moments of empathy, where we can see each character through the eyes of the other, with their exasperating traits as well as their heartbreaking vulnerability.

Unfortunately, there are far too few of these moments of clarity where audiences can sympathise with both sides equally. Increasingly, and most obviously in the major argument scene, the voice of reason belongs to Jesse, while Céline becomes, as he puts it, ‘the mayor of Crazy Town’. Her complaints about their lifestyle, where he continues to pursue his dreams while she takes most responsibility for the children, come across as shrill and hysterical. As a result, the valid points that she could be scoring against him fall flat, while his sarcastic comebacks send the audience into stitches at her expense. Increasingly, the scene is weighted towards the man’s perspective of a woman going grotesquely out of control as she pulls out every exaggeration, bitterness and grievance. This is not to say that there is no place for a man’s perspective in film: simply that it is unfair because, in a world dominated by male directors, a woman’s perspective is so rarely presented.

Grotesque depictions of women have always been common Hollywood cinema; comedies of the past several years such as Knocked Up and The Heartbreak Kid show that the stereotype continues to be in rude health, presenting the female as monstrously irrational while maleness remains the preserve of the calm, the reasonable and the well-intentioned. It is disappointing to see similarly parodic depictions of women in independent cinema, and all the disappointing so in the latest instalment in the Before movies, which until now had been largely fair-minded in their presentation of both genders. If Jesse sometimes came across as naive in the previous films, he remained unerringly sympathetic. In Before Midnight, Jesse has the upper hand in the arguments, while Céline comes across not only as unreasonable but unsympathetic. If you’ve already seen the film, check out Molly McCaffrey’s excellent point-by-point summary of the many ways in which Céline’s character has become ‘unrealistic and troubling’ in Before Midnight.

A final note on another running gag in this film: Céline’s impression of the ‘bimbo’ that she believes that Jesse’s inner ‘macho man’ most desires. Most likely intended as humorous proof of Céline’s insightful understanding of the male psyche, it makes the ludicrous suggestion that women, in order to ‘get laid’ have to play dumb, or at least let men win. In this, the film reinforces a dangerous misconception. It not only suggests that women regularly play down their talents in order to appear less threatening to the opposite sex, but argues that there is a deep, evolutionary motivation behind this—things have always been this way, and aren’t changing anytime soon. While Jesse employs his creative writing skills to make up with Céline at the end of the film, she, predictably, pulls out the bimbo persona to show that all is forgiven. It is a disappointing ending to the latest part in the Before saga.

With all Before Midnight’s weighty references to the pair’s 80 and 90-year-old selves, it’s hard not to predict at least one more film about Jesse and Céline. I’m less anxious for another Before film per se, than for the return of the witty, independent and hugely likeable Céline we knew before.

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