Clash by Midnight
I am generally a fan of Richard Linklater, but — at least on a first viewing — I was disappointed by Before Midnight. Its many fans say essentially the same thing about its accomplishment: it's a real film about love and relationships, about having kids, about dealing with the material issues of work, money, where to live, success (or the lack of it), friends, difficult ex-partners and custody problems, the cooling of initial passion... And the film is at its weakest, alas, when it tries to reaffirm the bond of love between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in the face of so much hard reality.
I have the sense that this series is 'getting dark' rather too quickly. When Celine and Jesse were in their early 20s, it was (to use Hou Hsiao-hsien's title) 'the time of love'. In their early 30s, there were already doubts, disappointments, regrets — but at least a good chance at 'paradise refound'. Now in their early 40s and... it's already a problem of approaching 'midnight'?!? Linklater should have a good listen to the Dylan song: it's not dark yet! These characters seem set to be in their graves by the time they are 50. But life starts at 50 (I speak from experience).
Linklater has always flirted (in an artistic sense) with superficiality: it is both the challenge that he works with, and the trap into which he sometimes plunges. He likes to keep things light, a bit mundane and trivial. His characters blather on, enjoy the small things in life, occasionally skirt around a major problem... But the Before series has, on this level, deteriorated from one film to the next: I find the glib harping on 'the difference between men and women' annoying, and the attempt to annex a little politics — whether Celine's strongly-held feminism or the Greek crisis raging somewhere far, far off-screen — bland, unconvincing.
The form of the films has unravelled, too. Before Sunrise was a triumph of 'social mise en scène': how close or distant these two regular lovers got was always mediated, thrillingly, through the unwritten rules governing the 'personal space' between bodies on a tramcar, in a record-shop listening booth, on a walk in the park... Before Midnight experiments with 'real time' techniques: a Kiarostami-like sequence-shot of driving in a car, and a Contempt-style hotel room argument with every painful word and move immortalised — but the thrill, and the tension, are largely gone.
Having recently re-watched Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) on a big screen, I kept remembering James Stewart's ineffectual protest to his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter): "In relationships, we have evolved..." — to which she definitively replies: "When two people love each other, they come together — wham! — like two taxis on Broadway!" Linklater's Before series has gradually lost its feeling for those 'two taxis on Broadway'.
Strangely, however, the real 'shock of the old' in connection with Before Midnight came not from Hitchcock (whom Godard had already described in 1957 as "more than anyone else the director of the couple"), but... Fritz Lang. Re-seeing (this time on a small screen) Secret Beyond the Door... (1947) and especially Clash by Night (1952) made me realise, for the first time, that Lang is (with Murnau, McCarey, Kubrick) among the greatest dramatists — and poets — of the marital bond.
Lang goes all the way into the melodrama — of menace, separation, obstacles, betrayals, looming psychosis and catastrophe — that Linklater gingerly avoids. The crux of the plots is always: to commit for life, or to give up and flee. Clash by Night, via Clifford Odets' play, draws an indelible, push-and-pull diagram involving five characters: two (Paul Douglas and Keith Andes) are determined idealists for marriage, two (Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan) are self-destructive, impulsive cynics, and a fifth (Marilyn Monroe) swings between the options.
And the scene where Marilyn decides — after weighing up all the tough evidence — to commit to her man, is a scene that would be impossible for Before Midnight.