PopcornIn 1995, writer/director Richard Linklater made a small film called Before Sunrise, which told the story of Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), an American man and French woman, who meet on a train, disembark in Vienna, and wander the city all night long, getting to know each other.

Nine years later, in Before Sunset, the action shifted to Paris, where the now married Jesse is promoting a book he’d written inspired by his one night with Celine. As the two wander the city all day and catch up, it’s clear the spark lit all those years earlier is still very much alive.

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Fast forward another nine years, and the three have reunited once again to check in with Jesse and Celine. In Before Midnight, we find the pair — now living together and with twin daughters of their own — in Greece, where they’ve spent the summer. But unlike in the past, when love for these two was an ideal, a dream, a possibility, now it’s reality, and it’s not so dreamy. Before Midnight tackles that shift head-on.

Since we last saw these two, Jesse has moved from New York to Paris to be with Celine, leaving behind his son and his (apparently) now bitter ex-wife. He’s continued to write semi-autobiographical fiction, while Celine is an environmental advocate.

When the film opens, we’re at the airport, where Jesse has just dropped off his son (who’s been visiting for the summer) and is considering moving the family back to the States so he can be a better parent. At the same time, Celine is grappling with accepting a new job that would keep them — or her, at least — in France. Uh oh.

And so we hit the road with the family as they travel through the countryside, and Linklater wows us with the first of multiple stunning, unbroken single takes where the couple talks about this dilemma, and mostly tries to keep their frustrations in check. You can keep your big summertime special effects; when the camera stops and just follows these two as they talk, it’s intimate and intense. It’s better than any effect: This is the kind of thing that’s made these Before films so special.

Like the last film, Linklater shares screenwriting credit with Hawke and Delpy, and it’s clear these two actors have really invested in their characters. They give another pair of natural performances so effortless and lived-in that you’d think they were actually in a relationship and we were privy to their home movies (for better and for worse).

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Before Midnight takes place on the coast of the Peloponnesian Islands (captured beautifully by cinematographer Christos Voudouris), and it has a nice easy-going charm early on as the two laugh with friends or wander through the country taking stock of their relationship. But it is not always an easy film to watch — especially in its final third.

It’s then, in a hotel room that was intended for a more romantic evening, that the couple’s frustrations bubble up to the surface and the film shifts in tone from pleasant to angry. Over a period of about 30 minutes, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy really dig in, tackling the difficulty of being in a relationship, but not wanting to compromise yourself for your partner. It’s stunningly brutal and honest, and those long takes, allowing the scene to play out in real time, give you (and the actors) nowhere to hide.

If you’ve seen the other two films in this series, as I have, then you’ve come to love these two characters as much as they love each other. Which makes watching the film a heartbreaking pursuit at times. That said, Before Midnight treats Jesse and Celine and the audience respectfully, not tying things up in pat fashion, just because the movie has to end. As he says of their relationship, “It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”

It’s lines like that that sum up just what an authentic, moving, and bittersweet film Before Midnight is. I’m optimistic that Jesse and Celine will find common ground so that when we (hopefully) check in with them again in nine years, they’ll be in a better place emotionally. And I know that with these three filmmakers involved, that next chapter will be just as memorable.

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This review originally appeared on Martin’s Musings.

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