The Before series ends in sublime fashion.

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

before midnight

Before Midnight
Galaxy (opens Friday 21)
5 out of 5

The Before series — Sunrise, Sunset and now Midnight — is the ultimate portrait of Generation X, a jaded yet soulful group that ultimately proved incapable of making a significant impact on Western civilization (besides a talent for sarcasm).

But the Before trilogy is also, at its core, a painful, rousing and uncannily precise dissection of romantic love and its long-term effects. Each film cuts like a knife: Sunrise embodies the intoxication that follows a romantic connection, while Sunset is all about a longing for all-consuming passion. Midnight deals with the struggle to keep a relationship alive when the excitement is gone — and when the object of your affection is also an obstacle of sorts.

At the end of Sunset, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) missed his flight and stayed in Paris with Celine (Julie Delpy), effectively obliterating the life he built with some hapless American. Midnight takes over nine years later. We reencounter Jesse in Greece, as he takes the son of his defunct marriage to the airport. The mood is somber: he feels he’s missing out as the 12-year-old enters puberty.

Moments later, we learn why: Jesse and Celine are still together, they’ve got a family of their own and the couple and their twin daughters are enjoying a sojourn in the Peloponnese. But the romanticism that permeated their every exchange in the past has been replaced by domesticity. They still enjoy each other’s company and do their best to be present, but cracks are showing. Celine refuses to even consider moving to the U.S., accurately reading Jesse’s passive-aggressive approach to the matter.

Worse, as the intellectual, stubborn and fiercely independent people they both are, Jesse and Celine are dumbfounded by the rigors of parenthood and family life. The simmering tension transforms what should’ve been a romantic night on the town into the mother of all arguments. The barbs they trade are so sharp and bruising that no one comes away unscathed — not even the audience.

The dialogue in Before Midnight is outstanding. Delpy, Hawke and director Richard Linklater — all co-writers — put to shame everything else that passes for romantic drama these days. The film digs deeper than the previous chapters, and forces us to see past events under a different light. Their love story is retold in such a prosaic fashion that it becomes a running joke, and our hearts break a little.

Hawke, who can at times be an insufferable presence on screen, is superb at portraying both the cause of the crisis and the voice of reason. Delpy (transitioning nicely from pretty to attractive) matches him blow for blow as a woman struggling to rationalize her emotions even as they overcome her. Delpy’s character, a feminist at heart trying to incorporate family life into her worldview, is a fascinating one.

From a cinematic perspective, Before Midnight takes advantage of the Greek setting without bringing excessive attention to it. The hair-raising final confrontation is shot in a dingy hotel room that can barely contain Jesse and Celine’s accumulated rage and frustration.

Before Midnight is by leaps and bounds the best film I’ve seen this year, and not just because I’m the same age as the leads (and have also crossed borders for love, come to think of it). There’s something magical about a movie that can literally make you yell at the screen, pleading with the characters to stop hurting each other. This is a masterpiece.