The story of Richard Linklater's beloved characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), has evolved into something of an epic romance that fans of the installments can't seem to get enough of. As one of the most complex couples in cinema history, Before Midnight explores Jesse and Celine's relationship, once again, nine years after the last time we saw them in Before Sunrise. Now with two daughters to keep them occupied and Jesse's son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), traveling back and forth to visit them, Jesse and Celine have far less time to wax poetic about the love they have for one another. A probing--often scathing--look at what tends to happen to couples that have been married for a prolonged period of time, Linklater spares no amount of dialogue in getting his message across when it comes to middle aged affections.
After Hank is dropped off at the airport in Greece--where he is vacationing with Celine and his stepsisters while Jesse attends a writers' workshop--Jesse's lingering guilt over having to miss out on the key moments in his son's life begins to mount. Suggesting the possibility of moving to Chicago in order to spend more time with him, Celine asserts, "This is how people start breaking up." In a style of dialogue writing that only Linklater can get away with, the majority of the film's opening takes place in a car as they talk about, among other things, what shitty parents they are, the possibility of Celine taking a government job and Jesse's roving eyes. When they arrive back on the compound, so to speak, the long-winded talking scenes continue (though Linklater, in his writing partnership with Hawke and Delpy, always makes their conversations interesting enough to hold your attention).
Jesse and Celine, naturally, end up dominating most of the conversation, rehashing the story of how they met and how Celine provided most of the material for Jesse's novels. Echoes of Waking Life are present in the discussion as well, with Jesse and his fellow Greek philosophers noting that sex will ultimately end up being with a computer. The conversation then digresses into Celine's insistence on the fact that all men--even an "intellectual" like Jesse--are attracted to bimbos. A bittersweet tinge befalls the table as everyone notes that Jesse and Celine's time in Greece is coming to a close. As a gift to them, their friends have bought Jesse and Celine a hotel room for the night so that they can finally enjoy some time away from their children. Jesse and Celine, however, are somewhat reluctant to be alone together as they have not been without a distraction from one another for years.
Strolling through the paths and cobblestone roads of the ancient city, Jesse and Celine begin to rekindle some of the romance they once shared. In spite of this, it is evident that the schism between them has grown over their years together--perhaps the sight of one another every day was invariably bound to eliminate the novelty of that initial amorous feeling they shared. They both speculate as to whether they would, in the present moment, be attracted to one another if they saw each other on a train again as they did all those years ago. Jesse likes to believe that their attraction would still be undeniable, but Celine--Frenchwoman that she is--is a bit more skeptical.
The sentimental feelings between them quickly disappear once they get inside the hotel. After their attempt to have sex is foiled by a phone call from Hank and an argument that results from it, Celine admits to Jesse that she isn't in love with him anymore. Unwilling to take this confession as the truth, Jesse finds Celine sitting by herself outside. He tries to pretend as though they're strangers again--and, in many ways, they are--so that Celine will talk to him. Unamused by his games, Celine continues to give him the cold shoulder. It is at this point that Jesse loses his patience, threatening to quit bothering to pursue her. Daunted by this prospect, Celine gives in to him.
While Before Midnight has its moments of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset magic, there is something about it that simply doesn't ring true. The message behind the film may be that great love is supposed to last forever, but it comes across as being more about how great love wanes and turns into a bickering brother-sister rapport. It also renders Celine as a somewhat desperate character, proving that she's not strong enough to admit that things aren't working with Jesse and that she should attempt starting over again.