Thursday, 27 June 2013

Before Midnight, The Red Pill Review

I know. Everyone will be reviewing this. Everyone in London is going to see it. It's the third in a series that might have a fourth ("Before Lunch"?), about Jesse, a cocky, good-looking young man who looks a lot like Ethan Hawke, and Celine, a quirky French girl who looks a lot like Julie Delpy. Having met on a train eighteen years ago (Before Sunrise), and ten years later in an English-language bookshop in Paris (Before Sunset), they are now married, with cute blonde twins, a divorced wife who raced off with Jessie's son when Jessie went with Celine to Paris to have the twins. They are now enjoying a six-week holiday in an idyllic setting in Greece, or not, because at the end Celine stages a huge row in the evening.

It's at that point the movie stops being an affectionate and skilful homage to the inspiration of the first two: Eric Rohmer. Rohmer's people talked, and were often scrappy, and Marie Riviere could be the whiniest woman on the face of the planet, but no-one ever got nastily angry and most of the time they were urbane if they weren't actually charming. Rohmer didn't really believe much in True Love, and Soulmates, and stuff like that. His view of sexual relationships was that they were transient and of little substance, and the only time he pretended to believe in True Love, everyone was so glad, they gave him the Palme d'Or for The Green Ray. Rohmer characters would never set off the way Celine does: they are too adult and sophisticated.

A few years ago, I might have seen Celine's anger as an expression of Female Insecurity that Jessie is Being Too Insensitive To Address And Was His Fault Anyway. Not now. She fabricates the row from nothing, in fact, from a perfect day and a wonderful supper. They have been given a hotel room for the night by their friends, who will babysit the twins. They walk there through a beautiful Greek evening. And after a while, it becomes clear that Celine is looking to pick a fight. She has no reason to do so: well, other than that Ethan is still skinny and hot and male, and she's a "fat mommy" - in her own words. Here's a tip ladies: if that's what's making you insecure, get to the gym and on a diet. Don't scream at your man until he gives you reassurance just to shut you up. It might work in this movie, but in real life in the year of our Lord 2013, it will alienate him even more.

Delpy creates a portrait of everything that men now deplore about modern women. The emphasis on "her career", the emotional self-indulgence, the physical deterioration, the random emotions, the resentment about her children and role as a mother, the shit-testing… it's all there. Hake's Jessie is the poor son-of-a-bitch who is stuck with her, and his "I love you's" come across as horribly lacking self-respect. His guilt about not being there while his son goes through High School is a show. He has indeed put the last eight years of his life at Celine's disposal, and look what he gets for it:  she's losing respect for him. The whole thing could have been scripted by Roissy.

I'm guessing we're supposed to read her as expressing her pent-up middle-aged insecurities, and to blame Jessie for setting them off by not-quite suggesting they move to Chicago to be near his son. To make that sympathetic, we the audience have to buy that women are allowed to express their feelings intemperately, and with cruel and hurtful attacks on their partners. You might, I don't. So to me, her outburst is as deliberate an action as a debutante snorting coke, and has the same purpose. The row is entirely strategic, and her words are meant to be wounding and hurtful. It doesn't occur to her to say simply: if we move to Chicago, your ex-wife will screw around with the weekend access, you will be happy or sad or upset at her whim, and so she will wreck your daughters' lives as well. Jessie will mutter something about wanting to be there for his son, and she should say: she won't let you be there for him, and you know it, you haven't failed, she has failed your son. But no, what we get is a gender-war-based tirade about Jessie's behaviour, her lost dreams and all the rest of those tired old tropes. Doing it the calm way would have made a much more interesting movie, because then Jessie would have had to deal with his self-indulgent feelings of guilt. Now there's a Rohmer movie for you.

Delpy and Hawke are compelling. I didn't walk out. The first half of the movie is beautiful. The second half is a terrific portrayal of a train wreck. I didn't buy the reconciliation, because I know that in real life, a woman who behaved like Celine does is actually one symptom short of a personality disorder. Walking out on the father of your children saying that you don't love him anymore is actually pretty close to breach of contract. Either you mean it, when the two of you are over, or you don't, in which case you are not a functioning adult, but a spiteful, hurtful, self-indulgent and self-pitying mess. There's simply no excuse for her behaviour. It's a gigantic shit-test designed to make Jessie prove his love for her, and when he does, she will lose even more respect for him because he fell for it. The only way to pass a shit-test is not to take it in the first place. Adults don't do that to each other.

There aren't many happy people in Rohmer movies either - and when there are, they are old. The middle-aged ones just look good next to his unsettled central characters, as in real life, couples will put on a show in the presence of unhappy Others. In this, Linklater and Delpy are following their mentor, but it's too extreme, and they create a madwoman instead.

There were, however, a number of women chuckling away during these scenes, and at Celine. It was the kind of laughter that suggested they saw her as an emotional child with no self-knowledge: of course she would behave like that, silly thing, she's French and clearly a little spoiled. Which is another way of saying what I just said, but without the insistence that a forty-year old woman behave like an adult.

Let's look at the "Before" trilogy: boy meets girl on train, follows every rule in the PUA book and gets an SDL in a park. Making promises to meet in a year's time, they not only don't, but also seemingly never correspond again. They meet ten years later, both the worse for emotional and relational wear, and the sex takes over again. Then they get married and have children, and she turns into Frustrated Resentful Wife who can only get her kicks by fabricating specious rows. Looks like Linklater, Delpy and Hawke - who co-wrote all three films - are saying that the last thing that two attractive people who have a magic sexual attraction between them should do is get married and have children. Because look where it gets them.

Red Pill gets through every time.

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