Sometimes, artistic genius sneaks up on you before it clocks you upside the head, and that is exactly what happened to me about one-third of the way through Before Midnight For whatever reason, the third installment of the every-nine-years study of evolving romantic feelings and the different ways that men and women view the world beginning in 1995 with Before Sunrise and continued in 2004 with Before Sunset, was frustrating me. It felt off, it wasn't what I wanted, it felt like the three collaborators responsible for making the first two movies such masterpieces had lost the thread a little bit. And what occurred to me, at the one-third mark, was that I wasn't frustrated with the movie, I was frustrated with the characters. Moreover, I wasn't frustrated with the characters in the way that you find movie characters to be a bit over-written and artificial, I was frustrated with them in the way that one is frustrated by a friend who is transparently making the wrong decisions and you've got absolutely no right to tell them you think they're on the wrong track.

That is to say, I wasn't upset with the story that writer-director Richard Linklater and writers-actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke were telling, or the way they were telling it, I was upset at the place that Celine and Jesse's lives had ended up, as if they were real flesh and blood people capable of getting themselves in a rut that isn't necessarily going in a pleasant direction. And that is the best short version I can come up with for why the three Before... movies are such terrific masterworks of psychological cinema. They made me genuinely aggrieved for how things were going for two people that I love. Two people that, I want to reiterate, don't exist.

The films in this series have a tendency to get the viewer's incredibly personal investment like that, based on the widespread adoration for the first two that has accompanied pretty much every casual mention of the new film since it was shot on the sly last autumn. At this point, we've been watching these two grow and mature for 18 years - and I won't swear that Before Midnight is useless to you if you haven't seen and loved Sunrise and Sunset, but I can't imagine why anybody would decide to come into this one blind - and it's just so easy to watch the shifting elements of their relationship and see in it the actual evolution of people just like you or I. American cinema has only rarely produced a pair of entangled lovers as flawlessly lived-in and carefully observed, implying years and years of backstory in the way a single line - a single word! - is delivered.

Midnight is all that and more, and now I really am going to have to start talking about specific details if I want to get anywhere with this review, so if anybody out there is as sensitive to being spoiled in any degree as I was beforehand, it's time to go away now.

The first thing we learn is that Jesse did in fact miss that plane out of Paris, for he is introduced saying goodbye to his 14-year-old son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, giving an excitingly casual performance for a child actor), sending the boy back home to his mother, who lives in Chicago and nurses an apocalyptic grudge against her ex-husband and the woman who stole him away. Meanwhile, Jesse and Celine - who are not married, but have been happily living together the last nine years - and their 7-year-old twin daughters (Jennifer Prior & Charlotte Prior) are wrapping up their summer vacation in the Peloponnese islands of southern Greece, where they've been staying with a writer (Walter Lassally) who liked Jesse's three novels (the first two of which were based directly on his experiences with Celine), and wanted to invite the couple to join his group of intellectual vacationers. Slightly less than half of the movie follows as Celine and Jesse dine and chat with the rest of the party; the remainder puts us securely back in the territory explored by the earlier films, as the couple walks and talks about deep things in awesome long takes, finally arriving in the hotel room that was given to them as a going-away present, and here they descend into a marathon-length fight that... ah, well, there's no point in trying to explain how it plays out, when an entire act of the film depicts it in nauseating real-time.

The disappointing part is that, alack, Midnight isn't as good as Sunrise or Sunset. And of course, you'd have to be pretty spoiled as a cinephile to demand that it absolutely must be. Still, there's a shagginess here that is on the one hand, an absolute perfect fit for the new state of the characters: this is the first time we're watching them having spent a lot of off-screen time together in the past, so there's no more "getting to know you" material, and the comfort that 41-year-olds feel with their place in life is reflected in the new film's significantly less hurried pace. The downside is that, even more than the first two films' explosions of philosophic monologuing, there's quite a lot of... dare I say, pointless material? Not "a lot", that's a grisly exaggeration. There is one scene that, try as I might, I can't make it seem like it serves any purpose, in which Jesse and the other men of the party discuss his new idea for a novel about perceptual psychology at great enough length that I'm pretty sure most viewers would be able to write the damn thing for themselves. There's another scene that needed some trimming, badly: a great long dinner scene in which four couples of four different ages hash out theories of what a healthy relationship should function like, and while the free flow of dialogue and the passionate energy that all of the actors involved bring to their performance are electrifying, it takes only a little bit of time before we figure out that the other three couples are symbolic extensions of Jesse and Celine, and the whole thing gets to be just a bit too schematic for words (that said, the final beat of the scene, delivered by Xenia Kalogeropoulou in the role of Aged Wisdom, could absolutely no be improved upon).

But you know what, a whole lot of messiness could happen before it started to chip away that the titanic excellence of the film's back half, where Delpy and Hawke get to return to the rhythm that they've perfected thrice over, deepening their characters and finding new and even more interesting ways to play them (Delpy in particular inhabits the role so fully at such an elemental physical level that it blows her terrific previous turns with the character totally out of the water). The easygoing flirtation of two people who know each other well, passive-aggressive sniping, bracing sexuality - Delpy has a topless scene that is, simply put, the most mature and necessary film nudity that has come along in literally years, exploring the way that people live in their bodies in a way that American-made movies try hard not to do - and a screaming match in which two people use deep-seated knowledge of exactly what the other is thinking to say the most hurtful possible things.

It is a masterpiece of a fight. We can see it coming for the whole movie, built up out of the little attacks that made this viewer cringe in embarrassment and discomfort, the barbs that pick up steam as the movie goes on. And when it arrives, it is the most raw, and unadorned and truthful cinematic marital spat since Ingmar Bergman threw Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson at one another in Scenes from a Marriage. The perfect flow of the arguments, the role that each partner decides to stake out - Celine will be Passionately Self-Righteous, Jesse will be Smugly Cool - the moments where you can see in the actors' faces the characters' decision of how much to twist the knife: it is savagery, and while I will not say where the film ends, it manages to feel exactly right for how two people who don't really want to split up would deal with the fallout from such a point-of-no-return battle, it gives plenty of space for 2022's Before Teatime to expand in at least a few different possible directions, and it has a final line very nearly as perfect as "I know" from Sunset.

There are little problems, little points where it feels like the film got away from Linklater a bit: the film is definitely more weighted towards Jesse's point of view than the previous movies, making Celine - who is clearly being presented with more depth and complexity than 99% of the female characters in English-language cinema these days - something of the Inscrutable, Emotional Female that the film would have been much better off avoiding. And though I love where the final scene arrives, I don't quite buy that it would have arrived there the way we see.

But there are only quibbles to have with a movie that is as emotionally rich and revelatory as it gets, a movie that examines with profound insight the ways that long-term relationships are made up of compromise and the ability to tolerate the rough patches that come in between the golden-hour romance of a breathless Parisian afternoon. The actors are as comfortable in these parts as any actors ever could be (I don't get how Hawke can be so great in these movies and so... iffy, in everything else), the glowing photography of Greece is drop-dead gorgeous, and the claustrophobically intimate scale of the drama is as instantly involving as it ever was in the previous movies. The accumulation of tiny flaws is enough to make this my least-favorite of the three movies, but that was a ridiculous bar to clear anyway, and damn me if this didn't come close.

Reviews in this series
Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995)
Before Sunset (Linklater, 2004)
Before Midnight (Linklater, 2013)