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FILM REVIEW: Before Midnight

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It ends as it began: chatting the night away are Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), the couple so many us fell for back in 1995.

With Before Midnight, director Richard Linklater's series is now a trilogy. The first film, Before Sunrise, dealt with an accidental meeting as a travelling American chats up a beguiling French woman. Sunrise was about sustaining and extending an initial romantic connection, which Linklater then revisited in 2004's Before Sunset. In the interim, Jesse penned a novel as an ode to that magical night in Vienna and Celine tracks him down. While strolling across cobblestones, the pair measure the distance between romance and reality.

Nine years later, here we are with the appropriately titled Before Midnight. Midnight is the ticking hand of the atomic clock -- and you know what happens when it reaches 12, don't you?

When we last left the couple [Spoiler alert!], they were stuck in Celine's apartment as Jesse debated whether to catch a plane back to his wife and son. But he stayed: he chose Celine. Now, he's torn between the woman he loves and the son he left behind (now living with his ex in Chicago.)

Before Midnight deliciously teases out the question of what happened to Celine and Jesse in the beginning, and, at the same time, we witness another emotional separation. This time, it's Jesse and his son, Henry. Hawke's Jesse looks older and leaner, but still has that bohemian air about him -- he is a writer after all. At first, all we see is a concerned parent, but with a sarcastic snipe at his son's monosyllabic answers, we realize the real Jesse is never far away.

Hawke, Delpy, LinklaterActors Ethan Hawke, left, and Julie Delpy co-wrote Before Midnight with director Richard Linklater. It is the trio's third film in Linklater's series of walking, talking European romances. (Matt Sayles/Associated Press)

Around the corner -- waiting in the car -- is Celine, now the mother of two adorable twins blessed with their mother's blond ringlets. She's waiting to drive them all back to a writer's retreat in idyllic Greece.

On a long car ride, as the kids doze, we reacquaint ourselves with the lovers who met nearly two decades ago. It's a tour de force scene: a single shot, unedited, that covers first loves and parenting while exposing a couple on the brink. Jesse wants to be closer to his son. Celine has already sacrificed so much. The battle lines are drawn. "This is where it ends," she says, as Greek ruins slip by.

It's a dour, depressing spin to a film also filled with vitality, laughs and heady thoughts about making peace with the past.

The tension comes to a head with an argument in a hotel room. Celine and Jesse are there for some time to themselves: the twins are taken care, the room's been paid, there's a couples massage on the itinerary. However, what starts as a rekindled romance goes horribly astray, as the two voice the unspeakable in a savage (and yet hilarious) episode of psychic warfare.

At the screening I attended, the room rocked with the knowing laughter of recognition. It's Linklater's deceptive simplicity at work. No matter what your age, it's impossible not to see yourself somewhere in this timeless battle of the sexes.

Given the length of the scene, the wonderful interplay between the co-stars and the utterly convincing performances, it's amazing that the screenplay was a collaboration between Linklater, Delpy and Hawke. What feels like improv was apparently a carefully structured script drawn from stories and moments gathered over the years.

In the end, Before Midnight is the same but also different. Of the three films, this is the richest story of them all because the stakes are higher and we've already invested so much. As life surges forward, Celine and Jesse endure, talking and struggling against the rivers of time washing over them.

RATING: 5 out of 5

Hawke, DelpyEthan Hawke, left, says he could easily see the Before Sunrise film trilogy turning into "a full-life project." He reunites with Julie Delpy for another Richard Linklater star-crossed lovers tale, Before Midnight. (Despina Spyrou/Sundance Institute/Associated Press)

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