Even though I teach film history, I am often afflicted by doubts that such a thing actually exists. For my students, anything that predates "Star Wars" is old. Go to Hollywood—where no film matters as much as the one coming out this Friday—and the amnesia only intensifies; you leave struggling to remember your own name, let alone Federico Fellini’s. The mid-morning haze above LA reveals something about the medium: its forgetfulness, its restlessness, its centrifugal push outward towards action, rather than inward to recollection. Cinema is a present-tense form, even its flashbacks swallowing us whole, like worm-holes, the past simply becoming the new present, until interrupted again, as "Pulp Fiction" showed us.
Then there is a film like Richard Linklater’s "Before Midnight", the latest in a series of films that began in 1995 with "Before Sunrise", in which a 23-year-old backpacker named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) managed to talk a beautiful French girl named Céline (Julie Delpy) into spending the day with him, walking around Vienna, talking, flirting, arguing and falling in love. If asked to provide a list of great American achievements over the past 20 years, I would say the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the iPhone and the speech with which Jesse first talks Céline off the train in "Before Sunrise". It had to do with time travellers, as I recall, but it was the tone that did it—a small miracle of foxy charm and open-hearted entreaty, whisked along by a Huck Finn boulevardier spirit. It turned out to be enough to power an entire movie.
Make that three. Hawke and Delpy continued the conversation in "Before Sunset" (2004), after running into one another at a book reading in Paris. When I found that the third film sets them down in Greece, a cry of "Eureka!" let slip from my corner of the theatre, for there is no more Aristotelian series of films—each takes place over a 24-hour period—and no more Socratic film-maker than Linklater, who delights in dialogue like no director since Eric Rohmer. To reveal much more would be to dilute the bliss, but suffice to say that the new film finds Céline and Jesse on holiday, trotting through the story of how they met one more time at lunch with friends—a joyous, sun-dappled affair, with three generations in attendance and the conversation veering between the philosophical and the bawdy, stoner pensées on technology and the self and the possibility of connection.
Looked at one way, the films are all talk, although the great genius of the scripts, which are a work of close collaboration between Linklater and his actors, is to arrange the eddies and whorls of chat into a remarkable simulacrum of what it is to get to know someone: the ionic charge in the air between two people. The first two films leaned in with a suitor’s soft urgency; now life has caught up with them and spread sideways, and there are kids and an ex-wife to contend with. Jesse is but a "horny billygoat", Céline teases, while she is a "balding middle-aged housewife with a fat ass". It’s Julie Delpy, of course, so she’s no such thing. As the two of them set out for a supposedly romantic rendezvous at a hotel that evening, and the hairline cracks in their relationship begin to show, you realise how this couple is in fact a ménage-a-trois, with a third, as-yet-unbilled character: time.
It has long been an obsession of Linklater’s, going back to his first film, "Slacker" (1991), and one he shares with his fellow indie alumnus Tarantino. It makes you wonder what they were putting in the coffee at Sundance in 1994 that caused all the film-makers of their generation to launch far-reaching investigations into the nature of time and narrative. Where Tarantino in "Pulp Fiction" bent chronology to his own ends like a magician constructing an animal with balloons, Linklater, by both temperament and theme, went with the flow, setting in motion a series that would turn out to record nothing less than the wear and tear of time on love’s young dream. Well, what of it? How’s love shaping up? What about love’s old dream?
They’re still talking, of course. "We have to stop talking and fuck," says Céline at one point, but I’ll leave it open as to whether that plot point comes to pass. What does transpire is an argument, a real Burton-and-Taylor barnstormer that releases the gathering storm in Delpy and stretches Hawke’s powers of entreaty to the limit. "I’ve given everything to you," he says. "I have nothing more."
It’s a great scene, pitting love and disenchantment against one another to see who’s still standing. You watch it rapt, if only for an answer. Linklater’s series appears to have grown into something magnificent and true, not as a result of any vaulting ambition on his part, but instead stumbling into profundity, after two decades of patient, curious, creative work, as if by accident. There can be no greater delight in art.
Nobody knows anything, of course, but using the in-house time machine available only to critics on Intelligent Life magazine, I can safely report that in 50 years’ time, the Céline and Jesse films will be held up as classics of the heartfelt sequel form, up there with Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Satyajit Ray’s Apu films and the "Toy Story" trilogy. For now, you should just go to "Before Midnight". You will not see a lovelier film this year.
Before Midnight opens in Britain June 21st