I’m not sure that there’s a more instructive contrast between two films playing New York theaters now than Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight.” “Gatsby” excites when it uses CGI fakery to create impossibly opulent parties in mega-mansions, but when it turns to matters of the heart, it falls flat. “Before Midnight,” Linklater’s follow-up to “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” consists mostly of the two lead characters from those earlier films talking about their relationship as they walk through Greece in a single day, and it’s fascinating. Its only weak moments are those that depart from the central couple.
Both “The Great Gatsby” and “Before Midnight” are cultural hybrids of a sort. Shot in Australia, “Gatsby” imports Bollywood star Amitabh Bachcchan to play a Jewish gangster and just comes up with a creepy new twist on 20th-century anti-Semitism, while using black people as decorative objects.
One could criticize “Before Midnight” for its use of the wildly troubled Greece as a picturesque setting, but in other respects it’s hardly mono-cultural or conservative in its perspective. The dialogue constantly refers to the tensions between feminist aspirations and men who still expect women to cook and clean for them. Linklater’s style draws on art films of European directors of the 1950s and ‘60s; he does almost as good a job of reinventing himself in their image as Abbas Kiarostami did in “Certified Copy.”
In the opening scene of “Before Midnight,” Jesse (Ethan Hawke) sees his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) off at Greece’s Kalamata Airport after spending the summer with him. At 41, Jesse now lives in Paris with his wife Celine (Julie Delpy) and their two twin daughters, who are all spending the summer in Greece at a writers’ retreat. Driving through the hillsides of Messinia, the couple talk. She hopes for a new job as an environmentalist but seems slightly ambivalent about its challenges, while he wishes he could see his son more often. Over dinner at the house of a British author, Patrick (Walter Lassally), Jesse charms the guests while Celine seems slightly prickly. Their friends have given the couple a gift of a night at an expensive hotel while they baby-sit the twins.
“Before Midnight” uses several extremely long takes. While I wasn’t staring at my watch, the lengthiest seems to be a scene where Jesse, Celine, and their daughters drive from the airport. On the surface, this is one of the film’s lighter moments, but it brings up some of the pressures building up in Jesse and Celine’s relationship. Perhaps because of their daughters’ presence, they don’t fight, but the couple are clearly drifting apart — her toward remaining in Paris, him toward returning to the US and re-connecting with his son. Neither partner seems wrong, but her willingness to stay in Paris and work for someone she dislikes is something we hadn’t seen in previous incarnations of the character in the earlier films.
Like some of Éric Rohmer’s films (especially when seen on home video), “Before Midnight” can seem like a delivery system for performances and words, but Christos Voudouris’ cinematography is lovely, capturing a sunny holiday feel. It has a well thought-out visual style. The camera operator tirelessly keeps up with the action in long takes as Celine and Jesse walk and talk. If one has seen Linklater’s two preceding films about this couple, the concept of the long take has a special significance. Via these films, made eight or nine years apart, we’ve seen Hawke and Delpy age. Their characters’ chemistry is quite believable, in large part due to smart dialogue, written by Linklater and the two actors. The fact that they’ve made three films together has established a bond of intimacy that seems genuine, even if Hawke and Delpy aren’t romantic partners in real life.
“Before Midnight” is a truly adult film — and not in the sense of being particularly sexually explicit, though it’s not prudish. Celine and Jesse’s conflicts will seem familiar to almost anyone over 35. One doesn’t have to be a father to share his horror that life may be passing too quickly to spend with the people he loves. And while some of their struggles stem from contemporary gender roles, one doesn’t have to be heterosexual for them to ring true. The film only slips once, in the dinner scene at Patrick’s house, where the characters’ thoughts on gender, sex, and technology sound like they came from the opening paragraphs of lifestyle articles from newspapers. The rest of the time, you’re unlikely to see a more riveting new film this year.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT | Directed by Richard Linklater | Sony Pictures Classics | Opens May 24 | Angelika Film Center | 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St. | angelikafi