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Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight.

A few days ago, Julie Delpy got a call from a friend who had just seen the actress's new film, Before Midnight. "Thanks a lot," said the recently married friend, who watched the movie with her husband. "Maybe you could have warned me, huh?"

Delpy laughs as she tells this story, a great honking laugh that would be goofy on anyone else, but is somehow chic on her. Before Midnight, you see, is a portrait of a marriage in all its messy, bitter glory. It contains both an epic fight that would incur a 10-minute penalty in a hockey game and one of the greatest marital insults of all time: "You are the mayor of crazy town!" I won't tell you if the husband or wife launches that barb, because it doesn't really matter.

Delpy plays the wife, Celine, and Ethan Hawke her husband, Jesse. We met Celine and Jesse in 1995 when they were curious, horny twentysomethings thrown together for a day in Vienna in Before Sunrise, which became a surprise box-office hit. The actors co-wrote the film with director Richard Linklater, though their contribution was uncredited. Nine years ago, the trio got together to make Before Sunset, in which Celine and Jesse – wary, lustful, slightly crushed by time – are thrown together for another day in Paris. That script was nominated for an Oscar.

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And now we know where Celine and Jesse ended up: In the valley of compromise, where all couples live. They are married, the parents of twin girls, and Jesse is torn over the messy divorce that keeps him from his son. Anyone who's been in a long-term relationship will gasp in recognition at the alternating current of joy and resentment in their lengthy conversations. It might not be the best movie for a first date.

Says Hawke, "Yeah, if it's a first date you might be better off going to see Fast and Furious 6 or something." But then the actor, speaking on the phone from his home in New York, says that his newlywed brother saw the film and loved it: "He found the movie scary and challenging and inspiring. I think there's something deeply romantic, despite how dark the movie gets, about two people who know each other extremely well and are dying to be even closer."

The movie is set in Greece, where Jesse has taken his family for a writers' retreat. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy met there 12 weeks before shooting began, and spent eight weeks hashing out a script. Each line had to pass muster with all of them; ideas were thrown in by one, refined by the others. The final four weeks were spent in rehearsal, an unheard-of luxury in film: Linklater's goal was to erase the line between performer and character, and each apparently ad-libbed, um-filled, digressive line of dialogue was in fact polished like a Duke Ellington solo.

"I come from a music background and for things to seem natural, you have to rehearse the hell out of it," says the Paris-born Delpy. She's speaking from Los Angeles, where she lives with her four-year-old son. Like Hawke, the author of a novel called The Hottest State, she's also a writer, and has produced several screenplays. Her favourite romantic movie is John Cassavetes's naturalistic, word-drunk, 1971 gem Minnie and Moscowitz. "Dialogue is very important to me, dialogue that doesn't sound like dialogue. I act it when I'm writing it, to make sure actors can actually say it."

Before Midnight is told in a handful of very long scenes, each of which is entirely compelling though nothing really happens. Says Hawke, "It drives me crazy when people say, 'It's a good movie, but it's a little talky.' I mean, what do you want? You want to see cars blow up? I sure hope your life is more talky than boomy." He laughs, then adds, "There was a real challenge in making it dramatic. There's lots of good plays and movies about the end of marriage, when someone's an alcoholic or having a terrible affair, and then there's drama there. But the daily machinations of two well-meaning people who love each other – it's not inherently dramatic."

There is drama, however, and it comes from divorce, the great psychic wound for a particular generation. The spectre of Jesse's first divorce, and the possibility of a second, haunt his marriage. Of course, when you've got two guys at the table who know a bit about marital discord (both Linklater and Hawke are the children of divorce, and divorced themselves), autobiography's bound to bleed into the script. It must have been tempting to drop some real-life fightin' talk into the stew.

"I feel like the point of our lives is to tell our stories and share," says Hawke, neatly sidestepping a nosy question. "The more honest you are, the more helpful the story is." I'm asking in my cagey way about his divorce from Uma Thurman; he responds with a long tribute to the integrity of Stanislavsky's method.

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The two actors, having spent so much time together over the years, felt comfortable enough with each other to be open and vulnerable; perhaps a little too comfortable. In one love scene, Delpy wanders around topless, as a real wife would. Hawke, who holds forth at great length about American puritanism, says, "I think it's a really beautiful portrait of a 40-year-old woman, topless, talking on the phone to her stepson about his science project. That's a whole human being right there."

For Delpy, though, the love scene was excruciating to shoot: "It was like making out with your brother. Ethan and I have a great relationship, we're great collaborators and friends but the romantic things is … not there. I literally had to disconnect my brain. I had to take Julie out of my body for those scenes." She does, however, share her co-star's exasperation over the semi-naked controversy: "A pair of breasts has never traumatized anyone."

The question any viewer will ask, at the end of the film, is: What happens to Jesse and Celine? Not 10 years down the road (Hawke says he's not sure if there will be another film, as he wants to avoid "Let It Be" syndrome), but later that night. We leave our favourite fighting and flirting couple – spoiler alert! – at a Greek taverna, still fuming over their nasty argument. So, what happens after the picture fades? "Oh," says Hawke, "they go on to have some fantastic, stellar sex. It all ends in tears and orgasms."

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