Brief thoughts (containing spoilers) on Before Midnight after the jump:
There's an early piece of dialogue early in Before Midnight where Jesse talks about his latest book idea that I keep returning to when I think about this film. He's discussing—with a few other people—ideas of perception and time, which I think sum up a lot of what the Before series is about. Obviously it's about a whole lot of things, but these movies have always been very interested (and this one is no exception) in the ephemeral nature of life. It's been a constant presence, influencing the attitudes and actions of Celine and Jesse in every film. In Before Sunrise, the young lovers contemplate their own limited time with a equal parts wonder and fear. Before Sunset, meanwhile, sees the couple each with a number of regrets: a feeling brought on by the knowledge that they have but one life to live. As they age, they perceive their own existence quite differently.
Which brings us to Before Midnight and its examination of whether the two characters' connection itself might be just as ephemeral as, say, the sunset they watch while Celine notes its gradual disappearance (a moment that's perhaps a little on the nose, but still quite powerful). Dialogue in the first two films has touched on the question of whether or not these two apparent soul mates would work as a long-term couple. Midnight, which finds the characters with two children and in a seemingly stable relationship, devotes most of its running time to this question, and its answer is . . . complicated. As it should be, because life is complicated. The characters are well aware of this fact in Sunset, but Midnight is pretty much all about them dealing with it.
Compared to the first two entries, the film is full of complicated and difficult to resolve issues. Jesse has just sent his son back home, and spends much of Midnight trying to get Celine to consider the idea of moving to Chicago, so he can be closer. Celine, meanwhile, has been offered a job with the French government, and plans on taking it. Conflict naturally arises, dredging up all kinds of history: none of which we're familiar with, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that their argument—which begins quietly brewing even as they walk, talk, and laugh in a fashion that recalls the first two films in pretty much every way—has the unmistakable feel of two individuals who have their own stuff to deal with. The notion of true love tends to assume that there is some sort of chemical change that fuses the two lovers into a new and stronger being, but in reality each person has their own set of baggage, weighing them down and often causing tension.
Does that ultimately make this film fall on the cynical side of the spectrum rather than the romantic (to recall the question asked during the opening scene of Sunset)? Not at all, although it's a vastly different movie than the first two, with its extended hotel room argument and tentative reconciliation largely taking the place of more conventionally romantic moments. To bring us back to the fleeting nature of life, the Before movies have never particularly bought into any notion of God, but rather the thought that we have to make the most of our time here on Earth. And that includes our relationships. Celine herself says something to that effect in Sunrise, as she talks about her belief that connecting with someone else is the closest thing to God that this world has to offer. And as the remarkable final scene unfolds, it becomes clear (to me, at least) that both still believe that. As they've gotten older, Celine and Jesse may have become more dissatisfied in some ways (dissatisfaction and the imperfections of life being additional themes that recur throughout the series), with each continuing to grapple with certain regrets and frustrations. But if a deep connection with someone else is indeed the most magical thing we can experience on this planet, then it's worth fighting through all that junk.
With that in mind, this film becomes arguably the most romantic of the three, even as it leaves the couple's fate far more up in the air than Before Sunset did. You just get the feeling that, somehow, they're going to find a way to make it work. Whether we'll be seeing them again in another nine years is unknown, but I for one am content to leave it there for the moment.