This review is spoiler-free.
What makes a great film? There is, of course, no real answer to this question, though critics have spent decades asking it. It is easier to say what makes a great director, or actor, or writer (that most neglected of contributors, at least in Hollywood). But a great film? I can name any number of movies I consider “great” off the top of my head — There Will Be Blood, The Piano, The Thin Red Line, The Seventh Seal are only the first few — and I suppose the thing they have in common, despite being rather different from each other on the whole, is that they manage to combine a highly sophisticated visual style and a number of great performances with an underlying narrative that says something powerful about the human condition. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on the formal aspects of a film, when considering its greatness: if a film is, ultimately, the authorial work of its director, then these choices — of cinematography, sound design, production design, and so on — become especially important as the areas of the text that fall most obviously under his (or her) purview.
But to be honest, I think all of this is, in a word, bunk. All of those qualities are often found in great films, but they are not what make a film great, for greatness is a more abstract and fickle thing than simple aesthetic quality. Greatness is ephemeral, indefinable, magical. There is no way to plan for it: it simply happens.
I deliberately did not watch Before Sunrise or Before Sunset for a second time before seeing Before Midnight for the first: those two films came out in 1995 and 2004, respectively, and eighteen years are supposed to have passed between the incidents of the first film in the series and the most recent installment, so it seemed appropriate that Before Sunrise (which I watched three years ago, not eighteen) would be a little fuzzy in my mind, and Before Sunset, which I saw last summer, a little clearer. My grasp of Before Sunrise is therefore not exact, but I feel comfortable saying with certainty that it is not a great film. I was not expecting it to be: everybody had told me that Before Sunset was the real masterpiece. Before Sunrise is sort of cute, as endearingly earnest as its protagonists, those heartbreakingly young incarnations of the adults Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have become.
Both actors co-wrote the script for Before Sunset with director Richard Linklater — as they have once again for their third installment — and that must be at least part of what elevated that film from good to the pantheon of greatness. For unlike the auteur-driven “great” films we hear a lot about — the likes Hitchcock and Coppola and Scorsese, in their primes — these films are not director showcases in any sense of the term. Linklater’s direction, particularly of Sunset and Midnight, is sharp, capable, eminently effective, but it is almost never showy. He favors long takes where possible: Sunset is almost entirely made up of a series of such shots, as we follow Hawke and Delpy’s Jesse and Celine around Paris. But though Linklater’s contribution to the films is undeniably huge, there is no sense that they are a product of one man’s mind.
We talk about directors as though they are the sole authors of their work in the way that a novelist is the author of his books, but this is, of course, an illusion, particularly so when we consider the fact that Hitchcock and Scorsese have rarely written their own screenplays. But Before Sunset and, now, Before Midnight eschew this notion with particular force. Hawke and Delpy are the living, breathing hearts of the films, and are, as far as I am concerned, the reason they are great. They are as real as any characters I have seen at the movies, and have remained so over the course of decades.
There is nothing showy about them, just as there is nothing showy about the films in which they appear: Delpy is a little high-strung, a little too prone to self-sabotage; Hawke is charming in a way that often borders on obnoxious but rarely crosses the line. Her sentences turn up at the end, a French characteristic that’s carried over into her English but that also seems to speak to her anxiety about managing to convey the precise nature of whatever is passing through her head; his laugh is high-pitched, incredibly unflattering, and almost overwhelmingly endearing.
Most powerfully of all, though, they manage to convey the feeling that, despite the fact that we have spent only a handful of hours in their company, all the intervening years between the films have passed for them like they have for us; that they, too, have lived the mundane reality of each day just like we have; that they, too, have gone places and done things and had experiences; that they are not here to tell us anything or to teach us any kind of moral but simply to be, to exist. The films implicitly ask us to consider it a privilege to watch them do that, without promising any kind of grand emotion or epiphany at their conclusions. Sunset ends on an exchange that should feel enormous — “Baby,” Delpy tells him, doing a Nina Simone impression, “you’re gonna miss that plane” — but despite its metaphorical significance, it doesn’t, really. It’s just a moment. It’s just a thing somebody is saying to somebody else, just a conversation not unlike all the conversations happening in all the houses and apartments scattered across the globe.
And yet it is, paradoxically, exactly this quality that renders the series so moving and so utterly remarkable. This, you can’t help but think, is what sequels should be: Hollywood is such a sequel-driven culture nowadays that I tend to roll my eyes whenever I hear an announcement about the next Iron Man movie, the next Transformers flick, the next Indiana Jones joint. But that is only because those sequels exist to make money; these movies exist in spite of the fact that they cost money. They are made out of determination and love, and it shows.
The opportunity to watch Jesse and Celine age together is, as far as I am aware, unique in American cinema; I certainly have never seen anything else like it. When they appeared on the screen at the beginning of the movie, I felt something almost like pain, I was so fiercely, deeply happy to see them again.
Even when they were fighting — and much of Before Midnight is devoted to the two of them fighting — I was overwhelmingly, crushingly happy, because even in their fights they were real, were doing exactly the same things they’ve been doing for eighteen years, on a slightly different frequency. They wonder, midway through the film, whether people can really change. The film provides no answer to that question, because it doesn’t really matter to us if people can change: we only want to be reassured that these two people in particular have — and will — not, except in the small ways that all of us change over time. We want their lives to look like ours, and they do.