Richard Linklater made his name in 1991 with “Slacker,” a low-key, discursive ramble through Austin that introduced a new generation and a spontaneous form of filmmaking that concealed surprising intelligence and artfulness beneath its laid-back style.
Linklater has gone on to pursue a wonderfully eclectic career, hopping from sci-fi animation (“Waking Life”) to family-friendly comedies (“School of Rock”) with easygoing finesse. But now and then he returns to the talky, elliptical movie he started out making: In 1995, he made “Before Sunrise,” starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine, two people in their 20s who meet on a train and spend a romantic night having one long conversation while strolling through Vienna; in 2004 he caught up with the couple in “Before Sunset,” when they meet again a decade later.
With luck, Linklater isn’t bringing the couple’s story to an end with “Before Midnight” — I, for one, can’t wait to see Jesse and Celine confront their later years in “Before I Have to Get Up and Pee Again.” But there’s no doubt that “Before Midnight,” which finds the young lovers of yore firmly ensconced within the regret and compromise of middle age, also finds them grappling with intimations of aging and mortality. Jesse and Celine still tease, seduce, wind each other up and prattle on with the same verve, but there’s an autumnal whiff to even their sunniest repartee.
“Before Midnight” begins in Greece, where Jesse is taking his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) to the airport, after the teenager has joined Jesse, Celine and their twin daughters on vacation. After a goodbye that is blaséfor the kid and agonizing for Jesse, he and Celine drive back to the villa they’re sharing with friends. With the camera trained almost constantly through the windshield on their faces, the first of “Before Midnight’s” long, unbroken conversations commences, touching on Celine’s career, their kids, childhood memories, sexuality and Jesse’s anxieties about missing Hank’s teenage years.
The back-and-forth continues, as the two join friends for lunch and, later, in a hotel room where they were supposed to enjoy a romantic interlude but instead talk themselves to the edge of reason itself: What begins as an observant, prettily escapist story reminiscent of Woody Allen tiptoes in John Cassavetes territory. Linklater — who, as in the previous films, wrote “Before Midnight” with Hawke and Delpy — proves to be a patient, compassionate observer of the irrationality, contradictions and passive-aggressive deceptions that come into play as the two grapple with what holds a couple together. Is it children? Marriage vows? Habit? Something more spiritual? (That last option gets pointedly short shrift in a candle-lit chapel where Celine makes a pious gesture into a naughty joke.)
There are moments when Jesse and Celine are so self-conscious about their relationship that the viewer wants to be anywhere but trapped in a car or hotel room with their constant yammering. Delpy and Hawke, clearly at ease in light of their longtime collaboration, nonetheless sometimes convey a skittish, nervous energy that belies the nearly 20-year psychic connection of two soul mates.
But more than once during “Before Midnight,” they hit on something real, whether it has to do with the casual mendacity parenting necessitates or the gnarly realities of domestic sexual politics (“Quick, what’s the name of our pediatrician?” Celine challenges Jesse). Oddly, of all the soliloquies in “Before Midnight” — and there are many — the most profound comes not from the central couple but from a satellite figure, an older woman who joins them for lunch and holds the table rapt as she describes her attempts to preserve the memory of her late husband. It’s an enthralling moment, full of sadness and evanescent beauty. Linklater is a filmmaker astute and confident enough just to let it play.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexual content, nudity and profanity. 108 minutes.