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Review: Before Midnight 

***1/2

Director Richard Linklater's life-affirming Before trilogy is the Lord of the Rings of the art-house experience, the Toy Story of the American indie movement (I say American because we can't exclude Krzysztof Kieslowski's wonderful Three Colors trilogy). In another way, it's the fictional equivalent of Michael Apted's Up documentary series, which has tracked a group of Brits every seven years to see how their lives are proceeding (the series began with 1964's 7 Up and has continued through this year's 56 Up).

Yet all comparisons are ultimately academic, as this is a series that beautifully stands on its own.

The project began with 1995's Before Sunrise: Written by Linklater and Kim Krizan, it tells of a chance encounter between a young American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a young Frenchwoman named Celine (Julie Delpy), who become acquainted while traveling by train in Europe and decide to spend their final hours together in Vienna before heading in different directions. Nine years later, the gang returned for 2004's Before Sunset, with Hawke and Delpy not only reprising their roles but also writing the screenplay with Linklater and Krizan (the quartet received an Oscar nomination for their joint effort).

This time, the setting is Paris, as Celine and Jesse see each other for the first time since Vienna and must decide whether to grab this second chance at love. The note-perfect ending, one of the best fade-outs of its decade, was ambiguous, but with the new release of Before Midnight, we now know how things panned out. Jesse and Celine did decide to remain together, and in the nine years since, they've settled down in Paris and produced twin daughters. As we join them again, they're vacationing in Greece, but despite the idyllic setting and the group of friends they've made, not everything is perfect. Jesse misses his son from his former marriage; the boy's living in Chicago with his mother, and although Jesse never comes out and says it, Celine senses that he's expecting her to agree to move the whole family to the Windy City just so he can see his son every other weekend. Never mind that they'd have to deal constantly with Jesse's ex, who hates them both - Celine isn't prepared to not only uproot the girls but also possibly miss out on a promising new job.

The bulk of the dramatic tension doesn't come until late in the picture: Initially, the focus is on the couple as they relate to their children and to the big-hearted folks who have invited them into their home for relaxation and conversation. There's a superb sequence set around a dinner table (outdoors, of course), and the dialogue is so fresh and invigorating that the scene proves to be as exciting as any action set-piece involving costumed heroes (or if we're talking about Man of Steel, more exciting). Linklater, Hawke and Delpy again share scripting duties (Krizan is MIA this time around), and the actors' involvement doubtless led to much of the seemingly improvised nature of the chats. Despite any dressing provided by the locales or the supporting characters, this series has always been exclusively about Jesse and Celine, so it's no surprise that everything and everyone else eventually drops out of the picture, leaving the couple to engage each other one-on-one. There's wooing and whining, and flirting and fighting.

Both parties are right, both parties are wrong. It's a beautifully sustained piece of cinema, raw and authentic and emotional, and if the movie ends just a bit too abruptly ... well, there's always the possibility of another visit in 2022.

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