Before Midnight: Kids, power struggles and passion in mid-life marriage

BeforeMidnight-489x204While movies rarely show us the reality of the struggles of long-term married couples, Before Midnight dives right in with a refreshingly authentic perspective on how intimate relationships change as we get older.

Like its predecessors, Before Sunset and After Sunrise, Before Midnight deals with the romantic and existential entanglements of its two main characters, Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) and Celine (played by Julie Delpy).  In this third segment of the relationship, the main characters have aged from their first meeting in their 20s, clandestine rendezvous in their 30s (when Jesse was married to another woman, but she was the wrong wife) and are now married and living in France. They have 8-year-old twin daughters, and host Jesse’s 12-year-old son for summers and holidays from the USA.

In other words, the romance is over. Throughout the film writer-director Richard Linklater smartly taps into the reality of their midlife power struggles, gender differences, and brute negotiations involved with their careers and personality defenses. The charms of intoxication with one another’s differences have been transformed into the battleground of sex differences.

There are few other films that I’ve seen that deal with this so directly—the film Carnage by Roman Polanski comes to mind.  Whereas Carnage included a battle of sharp and wounded narcissistic attacks between partners (two married couples), the exchanges between Jesse and Celine were fun and entertaining. Their interactions presented the tried and true battle of the sexes: the burdens that women bear in the family after they have children (especially when they also have full-time careers), the attendant struggles around sex, and the ways in which divorced dads (especially those living long-distance) often feel undone by the conditions that keep them from knowing their children intimately.

In much the same ways we hoped they would end up being married after they fell for one another in the earlier movies, we loved to hear them argue. People laughed loudly when the couple was arguing– women often screamed out in recognition of the truth of what Celine said and men chuckled loudly when Jesse countered Celine.  It seemed as though the audience was in teams supporting one or the other member of the couple.

I and others in the audience were relieved to hear these two “love birds” go at it in a most articulate and interesting way, the same way they’d conversed enthusiastically when they were full of desire for one another. For me, at least, they expressed a passion and intelligence that one rarely hears in couples who are stuck. Even though they were having problems in their intimacy, they showed the maddening stubbornness and creative phrasing that imply desire, even if they don’t express the exact desire of wanting to know one another more truly.

Perhaps what struck me most, though, as a sign of our times was that Jesse and Celine are really equals. No one has the upper hand and no one is dominated by the other. They could get waylaid in that equality — endless power struggles — but it could also lead to endless fascination with one another.

We hope for the latter.