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'Before Midnight' (R)

In 1995’s Before Sunrise, two young travelers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet and spend a gloriously romantic 24 hours together before going their separate ways. In 2004’s Before Sunset, they reconnect in Paris, reminisce about their last meeting and, by film’s end, seem to have fallen deeply in love.

Now comes Before Midnight, the last of director Richard Linklater’s remarkable trilogy of films charting the course of a relationship in something akin to real time. Jesse and Celine are now in their 40s and parents of precocious twin daughters. He has divorced his first wife but misses his son, who lives in the United States. Although the couple’s bond remains as tight as ever, the demands and responsibilities of adulthood are taking their toll. Vacationing in Greece, Jesse lets slip he wouldn’t mind moving to Chicago to spend time with his son; Celine rules out moving abroad, the first of several small but meaningful seams that start to show in their union.

A big part of Before Midnight is figuring out where the film is headed: Unlike the first two pictures, a happy ending is not guaranteed this time, and we’ve grown to love this couple so much that watching them bicker and argue hurts. If the first two movies marked Linklater as a romantic, the third one turns him into a pragmatist — someone who has gained wisdom with time and age, and has learned that true love alone doesn’t always conquer all. Hard work — a lot of work — is required.

Hawke and Delpy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater, have the sort of rapport that makes you believe they’ve loved each other for years. This makes it all the more painful when they start to drift apart (“We were on parallel tracks for a while,” he says. “But now I’m going east and you’re going west.”) As in the previous films, Linklater shoots conversations in long, uninterrupted takes, allowing for occasional improvisations and a natural flow of dialogue. The actors seem like they’re talking to each other instead of reciting dialogue, so when a friend of Celine’s says “Eternal love and the idea of soulmates are impractical — friendships and work are more important,” your heart sinks. You can’t imagine Celine herself ever having believed that.

Before Midnight argues love doesn’t die: It just changes and transforms with time, the way our bodies do. The movie doesn’t leave you with the exhilarating rush of Before Sunset, because that one ended on a optimistic note of possibilities. Jesse and Celine’s future together was still in front of them. They are older now, more cynical and less naive. But the film is far from a downer. If anything, more than any of the films in the trilogy, this one may be the most hopeful – and the most affecting.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy.

Director: Richard Linklater.

Screenwriters: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke.

Producers: Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Richard Linklater.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity. Opens Friday June 7 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Sunset Place, South Beach.