I love a good romantic comedy, although that seems a contradiction in terms. Good romantic comedies are few and far between, and great ones are exceptionally rare. The genre itself is frequently maligned and often misunderstood but, at its core, a good (or great) romantic comedy seeks to represent the complexities of an intimate relationship in a believable way that somehow manages to balance humour with genuine emotion. No wonder they're rare!
To my mind, Richard Linklater's series of films starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and the newly released Before Midnight (2013), are some of the best films ever made in this genre. At the same time, these films are also some of the least genre-bound romantic comedies around, and I think this accounts for their success and believability. Refreshingly, in this era of woefully formula-bound blockbusters, Linklater's series does not rely on a tried and tested Hollywood formula. And of course the films are richer for it.
As someone who has been following these films for years, there is something incredibly personal about picking up again with Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke). Indeed, Linklater's series has covered almost two decades of this relationship. In each film we only spend the space of a day and night in their company and the structure relies almost entirely on back and forth (often improvised) dialogue between the two central characters.
Despite this brief episode in their company, Linklater manages to create something that feels honest and complete. In each film Linklater closely collaborates with Hawke and Delpy, (co-writers), who clearly add immensely to the quality of the dialogue and character development.
In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine start out as romantic and idealistic college kids who meet on a train in Europe in the mid-90s, fall in love and then lose touch. Before Sunset sees them reconnect almost a decade later and finally hook-up in a complicated and charming Parisian scenario. Now, with Before Midnight, the couple are still together and another decade older. They have children and altogether more complicated lives. The cracks are starting to show in their relationship as family pressures and other demands encroach on their love story.
There are times in this film where I genuinely feared for the survival of Celine and Jesse's relationship. A substantial amount of the screen time is dedicated to portraying conflict between the two, and this in itself is a brave gesture on Linklater's (and the actors') part. These are not glamorous representations, but flawed people trying to find their way and stick together in the face of serious issues. Regardless of this, Before Midnight, like the two films before it, still manages to be a truly charming and romantic film about the banality, beauty, and brutality of a loving relationship.
Pros: I'm biased: I love everything about Before Midnight. Fans of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset won't be disappointed, and I hope the release of Before Midnight fosters an entirely new audience for these wonderful films.
Cons: Given that Before Midnight relies entirely on the relationship and dialogue between Jesse and Celine, I can imagine that if you don't find them convincing, this film would offer you very little.
Image Credit: Harpers Bazaar