As Before Midnight draws near to its titular hour, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) gets a mid-argument chance to make a list of his beloved Celine’s (July Delpy) flaws. “Well, for starters, you’re fucking crazy,” he begins — and gets no further. But sometimes, a one-item list is enough. It’s Celine’s insanity — or at least, her panic over losing herself to the roles of supportive lover and loving mother — that prevents this third installment of Richard Linklater’s relationship gabfest from becoming a sharply observed and scenic portrait of midlife. Aging and raging, she’s the motor that makes this a movie.
It’s been nine years since last we saw the couple, and we catch up with them at the end of a summer spent vacationing in Greece. Jesse has just sent his son back to his ex-wife in the States, and he can’t help but feel like things would be better if he was closer to the boy. But Celine has just been offered a job in France and views a move to America as undermining her very sense of self. But, of course, that doesn’t come out right away — instead, it manifests as a slowly spreading sourness that first colors a discussion of love over dinner with friends, then a long walk to a hotel for a night away from their twin daughters, and finally, their attempt at a hotel-room canoodle. Thanks to the smart writing, the conversation is never less than engaging, and Greece is embarrassingly lovely. But again — it’s Delpy’s terror at the notion that “women explore for eternity in the garden of sacrifice” that brings the drama.