Ask people about their favorite movies and the same titles come up regularly — Casablanca, Pulp Fiction, Annie Hall, Citizen Kane. But some films have special meaning for people even if they don't turn up on lists of established favorites. These are the secret movies we keep in our pockets like lucky coins — there's something intimate about them, as if they belong to us alone.

For many, particularly those who were in their 20s at the time of its release, Richard Linklater's 1995 Before Sunrise — in which Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke play tourists who fold a lifetime of romance (and plenty of arguing) into one night in Vienna — is one of those movies. For others, 2004's Before Sunset, which reunites Hawke's Jesse and Delpy's Céline nine years later in Paris and ends with one hell of a cliffhanger, is the secret treasure. Now, for those who love both but can't choose a favorite, along comes the painfully articulate Before Midnight, which tells us where Céline and Jesse stand now. Proceed with caution, tissues and perhaps armor.

If you're one of the steadfast souls who has avoided hearing too much about Before Midnight, I salute you, but I also suggest that you avert your eyes: Smudging the details would only dull the picture's serrated edges, so I'll present them straight up. Céline and Jesse are just winding down a vacation in Greece, and as the film begins Jesse drops his middle-schooler son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), at the airport. It's time for Hank to return to the States and to his mother — the woman Jesse left for Céline. This opening is both languorous and piercing: In minutes, we take the measure of this warm but cautious father-son relationship. We see how much Jesse has given up — the pleasure and responsibility of watching his son grow up, day by day — for something so mutable and risky as romantic happiness.

Does he have that kind of happiness with Céline? At first, it seems so. Céline and Jesse aren't, we learn, officially married — yet they're more than married. He returns to the car, where she's waiting with their twin daughters, two blond, preschool cherubs who look as if they've been plucked from a Victorian valentine.

Later, the couple heads off to a romantic hotel, free from the kids, where Céline's frustrations with her end of their bargain flare up. In a diatribe that melds thousands of years of female oppression with the everyday anxieties of raising twins, she turns on Jesse with such vengeance that she nearly crushes their union.

The tagline for Before Sunrise was “Can the greatest romance of your life last only one night?” Here Céline raises a horrible counterpoint: Can you destroy the person you love most in less than an hour? Her suffering is real; but her choice of words, their heat-seeking precision, makes you want to take her by the shoulders and shout “STOP!” Hawke's Jesse — earnest, clueless, helpless — cowers, attempting to process his partner's anger, horrified that he may never be able to stem it.

Why, you may ask, would anyone — outside of those who watch Blue Valentine for laughs — want to see such a movie? It's not giving too much away to tell you that Before Midnight has a happy ending — an almost comical one — if only because serious marital disaster is so narrowly averted.

From the first two movies, we already know that Céline is high strung. But in Jesse's eyes, her rage comes out of nowhere. Delpy plays the last third of Before Midnight as if it were The Rite of Spring — one minute she backs down, like a reasonable crocus deciding it's not yet time to break through the ground, only to come roaring back. Céline's tenacity is terrifying, not least because Delpy, her curves softening as she hits middle age, just looks so nurturing.

Céline does most of the talking, but it's really Hawke's movie. He spends much of it listening — we can see in his eyes how Céline's misery cuts him. Jesse's desire that Céline feel happiness — however “happiness” might be defined — is second nature to him, maybe because someone else's happiness always seems easier to nurture than our own. Her anguish is his failure. Jesse still dresses and carries himself like a kid, but adulthood has hit him hard, like a crack to the jaw, perhaps just now.

Before Midnight — visually stunning, in a late-summer way — is more vital and cutting than another recent marriage picture, Michael Haneke's old-folks-together death march Amour; it has none of Amour's's tasteful restraint, and in the end, it says more about the nature of long-term love.

The unhappiness Céline and Jesse are working through isn't what love becomes; it's part of what it is. For now, in the place where our hopes and dreams for fictional characters nestle uncomfortably next to our own disappointments, they're still together. That's more than good enough.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT | Directed by Richard Linklater | Written by Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke | Sony Pictures Classics | Landmark

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