Another Transient Moment: “Before Midnight”

February 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve written before about works that depend crucially on transient moments, and I was thinking about a movie scene that kind of inverts this — it has a delicate transient moment whose power depends on everything else before it in a very unassuming way. It’s not an emotional high point, but it’s a very deep moment with a funny kind of illusory transience, like the unassuming tip of an iceberg.

The opening scene of Before Midnight (the third in a trilogy, after Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, following a chance couple from youth to middle age) is a quiet and very deep culmination of all the ups and downs of the previous two movies. In those, Jesse and Celine met, flirted, fought, evaded each other, spent ten years apart, reconnected, confided in each other, and finally spent an afternoon together.

So how does the third movie open? Jesse drops off his son (from another marriage) at the airport and strolls out into an absurdly bright Greece afternoon. He drifts down the sidewalk from the airport entrance looking lost in thought. So far, very plain ambling, marked only by Jesse’s being and feeling alone.

We hear a woman’s voice, and then ahead of him, parked at the curb, the camera reveals an SUV and Celine leaning against it, having a very mundane-sounding conversation in French on her cellphone.

Opening scene of Before Midnight

Jesse strolls the rest of the way there, and they get in the car and drive off with their daughters.

Why is the moment remarkable? The first movie, and the second ten years later, were predicated on the elusiveness and fragility of their being together. They had only a day and night together in the first movie, failed to meet six months later, and only met again for the second movie because of a wispy ploy of Jesse’s to draw Celine back from the ether, ten years later.

And now at the start of the third movie, after all that elusiveness and doubtful fragility, Celine is just there. On the phone. And she’s not going anywhere.

Seeing Jesse approach her as a matter of course, in fact distracted from her by his own normal course of thought, flies in the face of the tension and implicit passion comprising the previous two movies. Jesse and Celine are just — there.

This moment wouldn’t work in any other movie because this moment requires the entire previous two movies, and the real-life decades between their releases, to work at all. It’s not a formally or visually interesting moment — it’s a plain shot, except for being poised behind Jesse’s head — but it’s a matter of construction and time, a sort of delicate plot device.

(The score plays a part here, because it’s a gentle chiming air that recalls a song Celine played for Jesse at the end of the second movie. It adds a deliberate and misleading touch of nostalgia.)

Since I called it a plot device, I should clarify that this moment isn’t essential to the subsequent happenings in this movie at all. It’s just a sort of exposition. But it reveals the whole state of mind of the movie. So many years, and so much plain passage of time, are conveyed in an unremarkable minute, thanks to all the dramatic movie time that preceded it.

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