The superb third film in Richard Linklater’s series captures the melancholy of long-term romance

In Before Sunrise, the actors (whose improvisations and revisions added much to an original script by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan) played two sparky young travellers whose lives cross during a talk-filled night in Vienna. Nine years later, Delpy and Hawke were sharing screenwriting credits (and an Oscar nomination) for Before Sunset, wherein the couple meet for only the second time, their respective lives having moved on, but the brief encounter spark between them still clearly very much alive. That film ended on an ambiguous note – a teasing spine-tingler that left the audience to decide whether Jesse catches the plane back to his old American life, or stays in Paris for something more… European.

Tellingly, Before Midnight opens at an airport, where Jesse (Hawke) is saying goodbye to his young son, Hank, sending him back to the ex-wife from whom he is now far from happily estranged. Out in the car park, Celine (Delpy) awaits, with the twin girls (the product of that missed plane) asleep in the back of the car. The setting is Greece, where our star-crossed lovers are coming to the end of an idyllic family holiday, replete with fresh food, fine wines, talkative friends and sun-drenched orchards. Their host is an expat writer, a mentor for Jesse (played by cinematographer Walter Lassally, who shot Zorba the Greek) and the owner of a dreamy bohemian house.

This is the good life – or is it? Beneath the surface, tensions are simmering, with Jesse hankering to move back to Chicago to be near his son, a desire that Celine sees as a threat to her cherished independence. After all this time, Jesse remains an overgrown man-child, a “closet-macho” who seems to believe that fairies do the washing-up, and who is not above crushing Celine’s dreams (she has a tempting job offer in Paris) when his own selfish desires and anxieties take hold. Nor is she a walk in the park; clearly resentful of her partner’s literary success, she blames him for the songs she has never sung, the freedoms she has abandoned, the suffocating responsibilities she took on in his absence. Inevitably, what should be a night of romance and passion turns into rows and recriminations, as the pent-up demons of the past nine years come out to dance. Despite their apparent stable status, the recurrent question of whether this odd couple will wind up together at the end of the movie remains unresolved.

While Before Sunrise revelled in its fleeting ineffability, and Before Sunset tingled with will they/won’t they? expectation, this third instalment is more melancholic. Despite the bucolic holiday setting and the lavish material fruits, it’s the day-to-day mundanities of life back home that hang heavy in the air; the emotional cuts of all too complacent familiarity, the Ozu-like admission that life can indeed be very disappointing. Even the sex has become boring, apparently.

Yet through all of this remains the spark of something we remember from the first film – the vision of two people on the brink of their first kiss, both hesitating (like Gatsby) to wed their unutterable dreams to the perishable breath of another, knowing that to do so will result in both fulfilment and desolation. Although the styles of Linklater’s low-key, handheld shamble and Baz Luhrmann’s harrumphing 3D CGI The Great Gatsby could not be more different, these two releases explore a similar central theme – the question of whether your “true love” can ever live up to your own expectations, of whether real life can ever match one’s boundless imagination.

If all this sounds off-puttingly dour, then fear not – the sheer joy of watching Delpy and Hawke bicker like an old married couple is utterly unalloyed, their director performing his usual trick of becoming the invisible third person in the room. Working closely with director of photography Christos Voudouris, who shot Yorgos Lanthimos’s enigmatic Alps, Linklater opts once again for lengthy, strolling takes in which dialogue flows naturally, body language speaks volumes, and gestures have the space to breathe.

As before, it’s often very funny, with Jesse and Celine swapping Woody Allen-esque one-liners – nicely snarky, appealingly abrasive. Delpy is on particularly fine form, reminding us of her terrific work in the underrated 2 Days in New York, which she co-wrote and directed, but which never got the credit it deserved. As for Linklater, he continues to be a prolific force of nature, the “slacker” who turned out to be the hardest working film-maker on the block, turning his hand from sci-fi animation (A Scanner Darkly) to quasi-historical drama (Me and Orson Welles) to true crime tragicomedy (Bernie) with ease, following mainstream hits such as School of Rock with the kind of indie-spirited oddities with which he first made his name.

Whether he’ll return again to the fortunes of Jesse and Celine is unknown; there will be plenty whose patience will have been tested by the navel-gazing angst of Before Midnight, who never want to hear from the couple again. Personally I could listen to them talk for ever; in Vienna, in Paris, in Greece, or even in Chicago, toward which Jesse seems inexorably (and heartbreakingly) drawn. Watch this space.

Mark Kermode undoubtedly raves about it in his Guardian review

See for yourself after watching the trailer

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (15) 109 mins US 2013

Tuesday 19th November 7.30 pm