They met on a Vienna-bound train, and fell in love with each other over a long night's talk "Before Sunrise."
Nine years later, they reconnected in Paris and fell in love all over again, no matter how much more complicated their lives had turned.
And now, nearly a decade after that, they're older, settled, with lives more complicated than ever. Will Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) make it, rekindle their relationship "Before Midnight"? Any couple that still has this much to say, who can still make each other laugh no matter how grave or loud the argument, has got to have a fighting chance.
"Before Midnight" is just as witty, chatty and close-to-the-bone about relationships as the two earlier Richard Linklater collaborations with these two writing actors. Set at the end of a long summer vacation in Greece, these Parisians live through the romance of that holiday and the quarrels that come once the real world starts intruding on their lives again. Old grievances and new ambitions, lingering guilt and fondly-held hopes come to the fore as these two hash it out over a long night away from the kids.
Jesse has just kissed his tweenage son (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) and put him on a plane back to Chicago, back to the woman Jesse left when he took up with Celine "Before Sunset." He's got three books under his belt, now - and twin daughters from his marriage to Celine. But he's missing his son's formative years and would love to move back to the States.
Celine has her own career, one that she's ready to change. If only she could stop packing for the kids, tending to Jesse's needs and scheduling everyone. She's feeling "oppressed" and resentful.
He's 41, with the same scruffy hair and scraggly goatee. She's pleasingly plump, and OK with it. But something starts the fight between the "fat-(bottomed) middle-aged French woman losing her hair" and the "geographically challenged, football-obsessed donut-loving American." And there's no ending it, not easily anyway.
She drags up old grievances. He corrects her English, and her facts.
"Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in the toaster!"
Oven, dear. It was an oven.
The collaborative script has each actor embellishing lines and buttressing his or her arguments with pointed, on-the-mark zingers. Hawke and Delpy are quite believable as a couple, articulate people with a lot of history.
"I'm stuck with an American teenager," she gripes.
"Why does any woman waste time trying to change a man?"
The debate is salty and sexual. It doesn't stop just because he's taken her top off.
And for the most part, it all seems too real. The occasional arch moment pops out as the argument escalates, more for structural reasons than organic ones. And I would have loved if Linklater ("Bernie," "School of Rock") had sprinkled some flashbacks from earlier films, letting us remember what these two maybe are forgetting - the moist-eyed romance of it all.
But "Before Midnight" is as good a depiction of a couple hitting that 7-to-10-year wall as you'd ever want to see. And Delpy and Hawke are so engaging as actors in characters that you can't help but root for them, and that maybe they stick around for another sequel - "Before the Early Bird Special."