In the 1995 film "Before Sunrise," a young American (Ethan Hawke) trying to woo a Frenchwoman (Julie Delpy) on a European train compliments her on her English.
In "Before Midnight," which catches up with the pair almost two decades later, the Frenchwoman, Céline, shows even greater command of English. Yet the American, Jesse, nitpicks about the few words she still mispronounces.
The difference now is that Céline and Jesse have been together years instead of minutes.
Such are the pitfalls of actual partnership with your romantic ideal.
"Sunrise," in which Céline impulsively hopped off a train to spend a night roaming Vienna with Jesse, and its 2004 sequel "Before Sunset," which reunited the one-night-standers years later in Paris, hinged on possibility.
"Midnight," in which Jesse and Céline now cohabitate in Paris with their twin girls, hinges on reality the reality of two passionate dreamers who never thought they would be tied to each other and negotiating a long-term relationship.
Directed, like every "Before" film, by Richard Linklater and co-written, like "Sunset," by the walk-and-talk trio of Linklater, Delpy and Hawke, the potently insightful "Midnight" sometimes devastates in its truths. It also shows that it is possible for each film in a trilogy to improve on the last.
"Midnight" also represents an extraordinary opportunity to revisit characters from independent movies that collectively made less an $12 million at the box office. A single sequel to a low-grossing movie is unlikely. Two is amazing.
But those who love the "Before" movies love them fiercely, recognizing that Linklater, Delpy and Hawke create a magic together that hasn't been duplicated when working apart.
As Linklater's camera follows during a day and night in Greece, where author Jesse and the family are spending the summer at a writers retreat, "Midnight" unfolds seamlessly even as it tears at the fabric of romantic fantasy.
Jesse and Céline will talk while driving, talk while dining, walk and talk, snuggle a bit, and talk some more, without once boring audiences. Their observations about themselves and human nature, casually delivered but often trenchant, always land.
The well-established romantic chemistry between Hawke and Delpy remains, but in a mutated form that's edgier yet more lived-in.
If Jesse critiques Celine's pronunciation, he's also her sounding board and best friend. During a drive from the airport where Jesse just dropped off his teenage son from a previous relationship (he spent the summer with them), the socially conscious Céline discusses plans to leave the nonprofit where she works to take a government job. Jesse gives her practical advice based on her goals and her complaints over the years.
He's in Céline's corner, but he's also haunted because he had to leave his son again. The son lives in Chicago with his mother. Jesse's ex is still mad at Jesse for leaving her years ago after his Paris trip in "Sunset," when he reconnected with Céline (and she gave him her best Nina Simone).
Céline listens to him express his regret and smells a plan to move the family to Chicago. He presents no such plan, but Céline knows him well enough to infer one.
She's also naturally dramatic, choosing to disturb a lovely outdoor Greek meal with friends by taking a jab at Jesse about the alleged Chicago move.
Delpy says "Chicago" as if it's something nasty she just put in her mouth. To feminist Céline, moving there for her husband represents full capitulation to domesticity.
Céline and Jesse are the same people from "Sunrise," just more so. Delpy has lost some luminosity over 18 years, her expressions assuming a sharpness as a result. Céline's personality traits sharpened as well.
Delpy is the most powerful force in "Midnight," bigger than the Greek sea or picturesque hillsides, bigger than propriety or politeness.
Jesse and a movie audience right there with him in adoring Céline in two previous films cannot say they did not see it coming. Céline's loquaciousness and heart-following instincts always suggested a potentially combustible nature.
Here, as in the first two films, Delpy smooths that potential with intelligence, charm and great warmth (when Jesse's son calls during his trip home, she takes the parental role and talks to him). But it threatens to emerge more often in "Midnight." When it does, hold on to your beret.
Hawke also has lost his dewiness, going from boyish to slightly vulpine. But he's kept his youthful earnestness from "Sunrise," applying it here not just to philosophical discussions but to Jesse's clear desire to keep his relationship intact.
He's solicitous of Céline, as he was in "Sunrise" and "Sunset." He's no longer trying to woo her, though, but keep her happy and remind her of the attraction still burning between them.
Hawke's show of exasperation, when it finally arrives, mirrors that of anyone who feels he or she has given everything to a relationship and still can't win.
But what if all he has to offer is too little? It's the eternal question facing the partnered-up.
The man Céline met when he was aimlessly riding European trains still free-wheels it to a degree. He leaves his family for weeks to go on book tours. He engages in long talks with fellow male writers at the retreat while the women cook and clean.
Céline's the one with fire in her eyes, but she also keeps those home fires burning, to her occasional regret.
As "Midnight" unfolds, audience sympathy will shift from one to the other. But the rooting interest of "Midnight" lies with the relationship, not the individuals. You want to believe a fantasy can grow into something real and whole, if also complicated.
What's more romantic than that?
Cast: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Director: Richard Linklater
Rated R (sexual content, nudity and language)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.