Travel Movie Review: Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s “Before” series (beginning with 1995’s Before Sunrise, continuing with 2004’s Before Sunset, and now extended to the present day with this year’s Before Midnight) is not everyone’s cup of tea. Each movie follows rambling intellectual conversations/flirtations between Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy) and American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) as they walk endlessly through gorgeously shot European locations (Vienna, Paris, and now Kardamili, a village in the southern Peloponnese). These are not action-packed movies. You have to be willing to listen and be patient and get absorbed into the atmosphere. Nothing really happens.

Except that so much happens. You get to know the characters, who feel to me like complete, real people who I can easily imagine living day-to-day in the time between the movies. They get to know each other, discover the things they love about each other, and bump up against the things they don’t understand about each other. And, most important,  you get to see some absolutely beautiful scenery (cinematography by Lee Daniel in the first two and Christos Voudouris in the latest) and see glimpses of places in the way that you could only hope to see them if you visited yourself–the perfect golden light, the smallest and cobblestone-iest of streets, the kinds of charming encounters you’d actually want to have with a homeless poet or a wandering fortune teller (instead of persistent and annoying beggars and touts).

This leads me to my sole complaint about Before Midnight. The two previous films both made me swoon for the characters and the cities they strolled through; the settings always felt like the third main character. Large chunks of this movie, however, take place at a writers’ retreat (shot at the villa of the late writer Patrick Leigh Fermor) and inside a hotel room. There are good reasons these choices, but they give the viewer less of a chance to enjoy the destination itself. We get some hilly landscapes behind the couple as they drive and walk around, a slice of a quaint town, and a brief scene inside a Byzantine chapel. Otherwise, this chapter of the story focuses more on people (including Jesse and Celine’s first extended interactions with people besides themselves) and less on location.

Which doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s an intelligently written and deeply true-feeling movie. But it does mean that there’s less for the traveler’s eye to enjoy. If you already love these characters and want to know what’s happening to them next, it’s a must-see. But if you just want to devour some European-destination eye-candy, rewatch the first two. And if you can do that and not need to see the latest installment, well, you’re made of tougher stuff than me.

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