NEW YORK — "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater's third film about the relationship between an American man (Ethan Hawke) and French woman (Julie Delpy), closes with what might be the series' piece de resistance: a 30-minute hotel-room argument between the couple. Brutal and witty, the power dynamic shifts back and forth between the pair, as one grabs the upper hand and the other snatches it back.
The scene is so credible that at least one woman who'd seen the movie walked up to Linklater recently and told him she had begun to use some of the lines when she came to a disagreement with her husband.
"Great," Linklater said drolly. "We're helping America argue."
Americans may be back to arguing about, or at least discussing, Linklater's trilogy — "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and now "Before Midnight" — when the new film arrives in theaters May 24. "Before Midnight's" interest in the struggles of an everyday couple and universal subjects such as relationships, death, parenthood and career ("a kind of anti-drama," Hawke said) would feel authentic in any moviegoing season. But against the summer backdrop of Iron Men and Starfleet commanders, "Before Midnight" may pack an even stronger emotional punch.
When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, critics praised the film's portrait of a complicated relationship that is passionate, thoughtful, chatty and spiky.
"Before Midnight" catches up with Jesse and Celine after they've spent years together (and accumulated all the shared baggage that comes with such a commitment), so the film serves as a kind of time-lapse mirror. The first two movies tracked the pair from their callow 20s to their more enlightened 30s. "Midnight" reveals the stubbornness and insight that one's 40s can bring.
"We make these movies because of where we are in our own lives and what's changed since we made the last film," Linklater said as he dined with Hawke, 42, and Delpy, 43, at a Greek restaurant a few weeks ago. "But we hope part of the appeal is that people see their own lives in it too."
Going for three
A few years ago, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke didn't talk about a third film as more than jokey speculation, if that.
After all, it had been the better part of two decades since starry-eyed Celine had met the cynical Jesse on a train in "Before Sunrise," the early twentysomethings spending a night in Vienna walking and talking, then going their separate ways.
"Before Sunrise" wasn't a huge hit — in today's dollars it would have made only $8 million at the box office. But it resonated strongly with many who were in their late teens or 20s. That demographic was facing many of the questions Celine and Jesse were hashing out, and, like a previous generation that identified with films like "Easy Rider" and "Alice's Restaurant," "Before Sunrise" offered a big-screen reflection of their own small concerns. There was a wish-fulfillment aspect too: If you were riding a train in Europe during a transitional summer, wouldn't it be nice if that cute blonde across the aisle spontaneously decided to disembark and spend the day with you?
The strong Generation X identification, however, surprised Linklater, who said he aimed to make "Sunrise" a universal movie, scrubbing it of pop culture references. When journalists asked him what it was like to make a movie that represented a generation, the normally easygoing director would retort, "Um, did you watch the movie?"
Despite the fan base for "Before Sunrise," there was hardly a clamor for a sequel — Linklater jokes that the only people who wanted it were him, Hawke and Delpy. Yet they felt there was a new chapter to be told in what became "Before Sunset." Linklater, Hawke and Delpy wrote the sequel together (the first film was written by Linklater and Kim Krizan) and had Jesse and Celine run into each other in Paris and spend another day together.
In "Before Sunset," Celine and Jesse are in their early 30s, and the characters' lives were beginning to parallel the actors' own — like Hawke, Jesse had published a novel, fathered a son with another woman and was living in New York. Discussions about the precipice between youth and middle age filled the air. The movie wound up garnering an Oscar nomination in 2005 for original screenplay.
Though "Before Sunset" ended with a cliffhanger (Jesse skips his return flight to stay with Celine), for many years the actors had little interest in revisiting Celine and Jesse.
But in 2011, Delpy, who lives in Los Angeles, was on the East Coast shooting "2 Days in New York" near Hawke's Manhattan apartment. They decided to get together — and invited Linklater to fly in from his home in Austin, Texas, to join the reunion. As they sat one afternoon in Hawke's home, discussions grew more serious: What if, shortly after the finale of "Before Sunset," Celine and Jesse had actually gotten together and remained together since? And what if they made a movie about it?
It would be the rarest of things — a ruminative indie romance threequel — and allow filmgoers to peek in on Jesse and Celine as a live-in couple, which hadn't happened before.
"It was one of those situations where for many years we didn't think we had much more to say," Hawke said. "Then all of a sudden we kind of looked at each other and said, 'Let's find out if there's something here.'"