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Before Midnight: What Jesse and Celine can teach us about marriage

Marriage – or any marriage-esque commitment – is a form of time travel. You move into the future alongside this other person, bearing witness to each other's triumphs and decline, linked always to your shared past. It's an extraordinary, wild idea, and yet, marriage isn't the most popular cinematic subject. On screen, marriage is the thing after the fun stuff, like the courtship, or better yet, the wedding. Shakespeare knew the wedding was the final act of the comedy, and now the story ends.

The new film Before Midnight explores the country of marriage, and the drama in the long, slow march of togetherness. Viewers of a certain age – mine, early 40s – have grown up alongside Celine and Jesse, the couple at the centre of a trilogy from director Richard Linklater. Over the 18 years they've been in each other's lives, our own relationships have lagged or deepened. They've physically changed as we have, like lab specimens, or the documentary subjects of Michael Apted's Seven Up! series. Perhaps it's the chronological parallels, or the fact that I met my partner at 20 and again at 29, but no cinematic experience has shaped my idea of romance more (it involves a lot of walking and talking).

Finally – thankfully – our Gen X cinematic avatars are weighing in on marriage. Beyond the film's artistic value, there's something validating – almost wonderfully voyeuristic – about seeing characters like us (or how we imagine ourselves, or how we'd like to be) mucking through the prosaic problems of creeping middle age. We watch for the thrill of recognition, and a small how-to quotient: So this is how to be in love, and now, 18 years later, this is how to be married.

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In the first film, 1995's Before Sunrise, young American Jesse and young Parisian Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, meet on a train. They are 23 and barely post-collegiate, wading in the shallow waters of adulthood, brimming with ideas but not much experience. Over one night in Vienna, they walk and talk as the clocks tick. There's sex, and deep, idealistic connection. Nine years on, in Before Sunset, they meet again in Paris. Jesse is a miserably married father and successful writer whose big novel is about their brief encounter. Neither has forgotten the intensity of that first night, and while he waits to catch his plane, they walk and talk again, this time with a new sense of urgency. The film ends with Celine dancing to Nina Simone's Just in Time, and Jesse missing his flight.

Now, nine years later, they are essentially, if not legally, married with twin daughters. On a night away from the kids in Greece, they stroll, but middle age is distracting: Jesse misses his son, who lives in the United States, and Celine is frustrated in her career and overwhelmed by motherhood.

I love this movie, and not just because I collect pop-culture marriages the way quirkier girls collect broken china dolls. Fictional marriages offer glimpses, no matter how unrealistic, of how people build lasting lives together. TV is far better at this than movies. Of course, there's a long history of sitcoms featuring a shocked dad waving around a dirty diaper, but there's also Clair and Cliff Huxtable, and Parenthood's Kristina and Adam Braverman. And there's no more admirable, equitable, sexy partnership than Coach and Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights, y'all, a marriage built slowly over several seasons, as marriages are.

But on film, happy marriages are scarce, perhaps because of the misconception that a happy marriage is drama-free. Movies feature marriage as trauma and prison in films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or The War

of the Roses. A happy marriage

is usually background noise – the abstraction that the hero

is trying to get back to when the zombies attack. Wesleyan professor Jeanine Basinger writes in her movie-marriage survey, I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, that in Hollywood's Golden Age, studios shied away from marriage plots: "Marriage had no narrative arc. It just went on day after day, month after month, year after year. Marriage took time, and movies had no time to give it."

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The Linklater franchise is about the unforgiving push of time, so it's a perfect place for the theme of marriage. In Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse's passionate night in the hotel is derailed by an epic fight. It's the kind of battle at which veteran couples excel, hacking away not just at the immediate issue (should they move continents?) but deep-down resentments; their laundry list includes extramarital flirtations and the division of domestic labour (Celine notes that men believe in fairies who pick up dirty socks and sunscreen the kids). In the chaos of family and work, they are losing each other a little. In a particularly sweet line, Jesse tells her, "I miss hearing you think."

But Celine and Jesse still make each other laugh, and bat ideas back and forth effortlessly. They are together in the rocky present, not just the romantic past. It is a movie marriage that looks like a real marriage.

Jesse talks about building a time machine, but he doesn't need it. He has this enduring relationship to move him forward and, as the author who solidified their first meeting, backward, too. In the dark theatre, we get to travel through time with this now iconic couple, and take back what we've learned.

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