Wow. That is my first response to this new film from director Richard Linklater, the third part of a trilogy (though there’s no guarantee there won’t be a fourth). It may pretend to be a Woody Allen film in the trailer, but this is more Bergman territory – only better.
Yes, I’m willing to say that this is a more insightful and entertaining film than Scenes From A Marriage, which has hitherto been held up as the ne plus ultra of Difficult Marriage movies. Let’s just be clear; this is not a rom com. It is a series of conversations, nearly all of them between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. These two met (in a movie – Before Sunrise) 18 years ago, as a pair of twentysomethings who wandered round Paris and talked all night. In Before Sunset, nine years later, they met again, and at the end of that film, it was left unclear as to whether Hawke would head back to his wife and son. Obviously he didn’t.
At the outset of the film, Jesse (Hawke) is saying goodbye to his fourteen year old, who has just spent six weeks in Greece with his dad. It’s a painful departure, because he won’t see his son again for a long time, and he and his ex-wife have a toxic relationship. What’s worse, from the point of view of being the father he’d like to be, he lives in Paris with Celine (Delpy) and their gorgeous twin 7 year old girls, who are waiting in the car outside the airport. The first of the film’s conversations takes place on the journey back to the seaside villa where they are staying, as the girls sleep in the back seat. It’s a foretaste of the issues to come. She’s thinking of taking a new job in Paris. He retains some idea of being able to live in America to see moe of his son. It’s not so much edgy as close to the edge.
The next conversation is eight-sided, round a lunch table, as their elderly English host, a friend of his, his grandson, and the grandson’s girlfriend, and another couple, all exchange views of love, life and the issues of being a couple. Mostly friendly, but again, you sense some underlying tension. Jesse and Celine are then given the poisoned chalice of an evening alone together, something that parents of small children dream of; except that it is also the perfect opportunity for simmering discontents to come to the boil – which they do.
Like I say, this a film in which people talk, and do very little else. Even the sex scene is interrupted by a quarrel. One of the reasons I admire this film so much is that couples who quarrel – indeed any quarrel scenes at all – are very hard to pull off in cinema. They usually feel staged and artificial. Not here. These disagreements and resentments are organic and authentic and very reminiscent of places most couples go to. To create a film around this couple who have so much going for them, yet cannot be fully happy together – and to make it credible – is quite an achievement. The previous 2 films were lighter this one is a serious piece of work. Credit should go to the actors as well as Linklater, who improvised a good deal of the dialogue.
Whether it’s the perfect date movie, I’m not sure. Or even whether it’s the right film for a couple going out together without their children for the first time in ages. But if you compare it to its nearest mainstream Hollywood equivalent – This Is 40 – then it’s impossible to imagine a bigger gulf of intelligence and insight. There aren’t that many grownup American films around these days, but with this and Behind The Candelabra, maybe it’s a (small) purple patch. Make the most of it while it lasts.