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Film Review: ‘Before Midnight’

Vivian Rothstein

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Fifty years from now, when people want to know what relationships between women and men were like in 2013, they’d be well advised to watch the new Richard Linklater film, Before Midnight. This is the third installment in a film series that follows the relationship of a young French environmentalist (Julie Delpy) and an American writer (Ethan Hawke). In the first film, Before Sunrise, they meet on a train while they are in their 20s and spend a chatty, romantic night together in Vienna. In the second, Before Sunset, they reconnect nine years later in Paris as 30-somethings and rekindle the connection. And in Before Midnight, after another nine years, they are a couple with 7-year-old twins vacationing in Greece.

The first two films are dreamily romantic and enticing to watch. The beauty of the location cities is matched by the beauty of the pair’s budding relationship. This last one, of a 40ish couple with kids, takes much more effort to watch. But isn’t that true of long-term relationships, after all? They’re a lot of work.

Each of the film’s three main scenes dwells on the push-pull between independence and intimacy. The most commented upon scene is a nearly 30-minute fight between the two  in an anonymous, modern hotel  room – the kind of fight I’ve either had in my head or out loud more times than I’d care to admit.

What is amazing to me about the dialogue is that Celine (Delpy) articulates the insecurities and fears that can drive women crazy as we struggle against entrenched gender roles — the very roles that can undermine female ambition, self-confidence and achievement. Who ends up doing the most child care? Who has the intellectual discussions while the other makes the dinner? Who sacrifices their career for the other’s? Who is called from work when the kids are sick? And who is keeping track? You bet — it’s usually the woman.

The issue isn’t whether the woman loves the man. The issue is whether she can be all she wants to be while she’s in this relationship and, if not, why not.

In the film’s middle scene several stunningly handsome men and women of various ages, in and out of relationships, declare that couples don’t last and that, if they do, it’s only because the men and women lead independent lives. One woman from a much older generation swoons about her lost husband and how fused their lives were – clearly a throwback to an earlier and now nearly unbelievable era.

Human civilization is making major strides in opening opportunities for women and in eradicating many of the oppressive assumptions about female roles in the economy, the family, religion and culture. But making those changes requires vigilance and push-back from women in their day-to-day lives – something that can make a woman such as Celine seem like she’s an insensitive complainer.

What’s unique about Before Midnight is that it takes the trouble to portray the reality of these interactions and to show that deep social change in gender relationships is a difficult work in progress.

In 50 years the struggle this couple faces may look like ancient history. Wishful thinking?

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