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Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight.

Every nine years, they get together to talk about love, and their conversation is unique in the annals of film. Unique, because this is an ongoing fiction so well-crafted by its principals, director Richard Linklater plus actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke all collaborating on the script, that it plays like documented fact, a kind of 7 Up primer on life's romantic vicissitudes.

From their chance encounter in Vienna (Before Sunrise) to their reconnection in Paris (Before Sunset) to their sojourn here, we meet the couple, Celine and Jesse, infrequently but at points of peak intensity, and those isolated moments form a continuum that seems palpably real – like us, they have aged and compromised and lost big battles that now look trivial and won victories that could prove Pyrrhic. For them too, time has spoken, and only time will tell.

In the interim, the conversation goes on. Words are the action in these movies, the sole kinetic force, and they begin with the guilty words spoken by a divorced dad, Hawke's Jesse, to his departing teenage son: "You know how much I miss you, right?" The question mark betrays his anxiety – in this situation, the child is always father to the man. So, at the airport as the seconds tick down on their summer-custody holiday, the boy offers a reassuring "Love you," then makes his way through the security gate. Dad watches him bound off, hoping for a backward glance and final wave. Neither comes.

Outside in the parked SUV, Delpy's Celine awaits, as do their twin daughters asleep in the back seat. Yes, the two are together now, living in Paris but vacationing in Greece, and the first of the film's three extended sequences unfolds on their drive back to the villa. Their playful banter suggests a contented union, although his residual guilt casts a shadow. When, in a typically passive/aggressive fashion, he floats the idea – just a hypothesis, just thinking out loud – of their moving to the United States to be closer to his son, the playfulness drains from her voice. She's heard this before, and knows where it leads: "This is how people start breaking up."

Back at the villa, a writers' retreat, the second and weakest sequence spins out over the dinner table. There, the couple gathers with a generational cross-section of other yakkers, from the white-haired patriarch to a newly minted pair of young lovers. When it resonates, the chatter in these films, like the best chatter anywhere, moves fluidly from the particular to the general, the casual to the lofty, and back again without breaking stride. At this point, though, it feels arch and forced, reaching for elevated conclusions like, "At the end of the day, it's not the love of one person that matters, it's the love of life." Set that to lyrics and you got a Paul Anka tune.

Much, much better is the final act that returns the focus to Jesse and Celine alone, with Linklater's hand-held camera following them on a long tracking shot through the streets of town. As it does, we get to observe them up close, how the decades have turned the bloom of youth into settled middle-age, still attractive yet with firmer edges – the etched lines on his face, the thickening around her waist. But if the body's changes are obvious, the mind's are more subtle, and Jesse's impromptu musings perfectly capture one of those subtleties: "Every year I get a little more humbled by everything I don't know and will never learn." Amen to that.

Having created and aged into their characters, both Delpy and Hawke are superb at doing what professional actors find so difficult – not seeming to act. This naturalism serves them, and us, wonderfully at the climax in a hotel room, a dirty night paid for by their friends who are babysitting the kids. My how they talk, even through the foreplay as he removes her top. And that's when it happens: The sex stops and the vicious argument begins. Sure, it can occasionally seem tedious, eavesdropping on other people's rancour. Still, the dialogue is truly kinetic here, pulsating with the awful ebb and flow of any bitter domestic dispute – the almost inadvertent build-up, the sudden eruption, the name-calling, the slammed door, the return, the near make-up, then the even more flagrant anger and the exhausted aloneness.

Feelings cool, but such hot words never die, lingering in the memory, forgiven maybe but not forgotten, and always exacting a price. Celine and Jesse will have to pay it – no doubt, nine years from now, we'll find out when and how steep. Love's trial continues.

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