Friday, July 29, 2005

Before Sunset

The tagline on the movie poster for Richard Linklater's extraordinary and beloved 1995 "Before Sunrise" reads, "Can the greatest romance of your life last only one night?" It's a question that can be answered in two possible ways. First, with another question: "How does the human heart define 'one night'?" Or, better yet, with another movie -- in this case, the delicate but ardent "Before Sunset."

In "Before Sunrise," Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke played Celine and Jesse, young students who meet up on a train while traveling through Europe. She's French; he's American. Their first conversation is creaky and halting, a sorry old freight train struggling to make it uphill, with the earnestly eager Jesse working desperately (as men so often do) to engage the luminous Celine in a conversation that will last more than 30 seconds. Celine keeps trying to return to her book, doing her darnedest to pretend she's not intrigued by him.

But she warms to Jesse, almost against her better judgment (as women so often do), and the two decide to disembark in Vienna and wander the city together until Celine's train leaves the next morning. They spend the time talking, sometimes about heady metaphysical conceits and sometimes about nothing much at all. By the end of the picture, they're intimate strangers, like an ancient married couple in a fairytale who magically awake one day to find themselves young and beautiful and yearning to discover each other anew again.

At the end of "Before Sunrise," Celine and Jesse part, reluctantly, agreeing to meet again in Vienna six months later. It's an ending that works by speaking directly to our indignance, to our proprietary feelings about characters we've come to love in an extremely compressed amount of time. How could these two people even think of moving on and living a life without us, their tag-along voyeurs? And yet that's exactly what they do, leaving us to wonder: Did they keep that appointment in Vienna? And if so, what happened next?

"Before Sunset," which reunites Jesse and Celine after nine years, answers both of those questions, and yet it goes far beyond merely satisfying our curiosity. "Before Sunrise" was an opalescent picture, one that dazzled with subtle flecks of light. "Before Sunset" has an even subtler texture, and yet its muted patina leaves a more potent, longer-lasting afterglow. "Before Sunrise" captures the exhilaration of connecting with another person; "Before Sunset" moves forward from there, burrowing into territory that's more complex and dangerous, but also perhaps more vital. It reminds us that connections can remain strong even after we believe we've safely loosened them. And it offers the idea, alternately comforting and terrifying, that we don't have the luxury of moving further and further away from our most significant memories until they're just tiny specks in the distance; instead, they stick with us stubbornly, forcing us to fold them into our lives as we go on living. A romance that lasts just one night can change the rest of your eternity.

How true is that for Celine and Jesse, circa 2004? To say too much about "Before Sunset" is to give the game away. Or, as Jesse himself says, "In the words of my grandfather, 'To answer that would take the piss out of the whole thing.'" But I think it's safe to tell you Jesse is a successful novelist who has just published a fictionalized account of his night with Celine. Paris, where she now lives, is the last stop on his book tour. He gives his last reading among the cozy, cramped jumble of shelves at Shakespeare & Co., and as he's fielding questions from journalists about the possible real-life genesis of his story (dodging them is perhaps more like it), Celine herself suddenly appears. Jesse keeps talking, barely breaking stride, but it's obvious from the look on his face -- it has the guarded radiance of a decent guy who's learned, the hard way, not to expect too much out of reality -- that there's one particular thing he'd desperately hoped would happen. And finally, it has.

Celine greets Jesse with the kind of awkwardness that is its own warmth; their individual force fields start to disintegrate around them at the merest touch, although, on the surface, they both scramble to maintain their defenses. Jesse has less than an hour and a half before he catches his flight home, and he and Celine decide (as if it were actually a decision to be made) to spend that time together. As they walk through the city, starting out at a café, wandering through cobbled streets and eventually onto a tourist boat on the Seine, they share details about their lives: Celine works for a humanitarian-aid organization and is currently dating a photojournalist she claims to be in love with. Jesse is married and has a kid he adores.

Their conversation meanders from the pleasant catching-up that happens between old friends, to veiled admissions about their respective frustrations and disappointments, to declarations whose directness is piercing. As Celine and Jesse wander and talk, the camera lingers on their faces for seven or eight minutes at a time, as if it can't bear to tear itself away from their conversation, or, more specifically, from their presence itself.

We can't tear ourselves away either. The movie is structured in real time -- it's 80 minutes long, and its pacing is so fluid that the picture is over long before you're ready to let go of the characters. (Like its predecessor, "Before Sunset" ends with an implied question -- you'll have to see the movie to find out what it is.) And, like "Before Sunrise," it's beautifully shot by Lee Daniel -- its surface is both modestly low-key and lustrous.

Delpy and Hawke's performances seem to be actually layered into the movie's structure: It's a given that Celine and Jesse are entranced by each other, yet they maintain their sturdy façades through much of the movie -- the feelings beneath the surface don't so much spill out in a torrent as sift out like magic dust, a testament to the control and sensitivity of these two actors. Delpy gets to play the neurotic cutup: She tells Jesse the story of how, when she was living in New York as a student (as it turns out, he was living there at the same time), a police officer told her she'd better get a gun. Her words come out in a breathless somersault: "Me with a gun, I mean, that's really scary!" Her eyes go all googly, like those of a cartoon mermaid.

But even Celine knows she's using the entertainment value of her neuroses as a shield: When she allows her deeper feelings to tumble out, her vulnerability closes in on her. We see how the restless, thoughtful 20-ish girl we met in the first picture is not so different from this alternately poised and goofy woman in her early 30s -- the chief difference is that the woman wonders if she may be running out of things to look forward to. Delpy is trimmer now, more willowy. Her face has lost its puppyish innocence, but gained an incandescent thoughtfulness.

How does Jesse respond to this older, and yet not so different, Celine? Hawke's performance matches Delpy's note for note -- he's the woodwind to her strings. When you first compare this Hawke to the 1995 version ("Before Sunset" includes a brief montage of images from the earlier movie), you may think he hasn't aged much at all. But when you look more closely, you see how his tail-wagging boyishness has settled into something sturdier, more reliable -- not as if he's accidentally lost his innocence along the way but as if he'd consciously tuned it out. Explaining his decision to get married, he admits to Celine that he had been obsessed with "this idea of your best self. And I wanted to pursue that even if it overrode my more honest self." And at times, he looks at Celine with such anxious expectation in his eyes that he seems infinitely more vulnerable than even his younger self.

The script for "Before Sunset" was written by Linklater, Delpy and Hawke (from a story by Linklater and Kim Krizan, who collaborated with the director on the screenplay for "Before Sunrise"). It seems as if the three set out with a stern mission for themselves and never veered away from it. "Before Sunset" is that rare adult romance that doesn't condescend to adults. We generally accept that young people are more vulnerable to suffering at the hands of love. The prevailing wisdom is that you don't feel things as acutely as you get older, which, like so many nuggets of prevailing wisdom, is true -- except when it's not.

"Before Sunset" accepts no prevailing wisdom. In love, there's no black and white, only rosy grays, and "Before Sunset" revels in the freedom of that limitless palette. Although there isn't a single kiss in this love story, it's intensely erotic -- and more to the point, it's not afraid of eroticsm's juicier and more forthright twin, carnality.

The suggestion, I think, is that connections between souls can be as solid as, and even messier than, connections between bodies. At one point Jesse confesses to Celine, "If someone were to touch me, I'd dissolve into molecules." We often talk about romance as a dreamy thing, a gossamer blessing that floats down upon us from the sky. "Before Sunset" nudges us into rethinking everything we claim to know about romance. For all its elusiveness, it may be sturdier, earthier than we know. It just might be the glue that holds the molecules together.

Pop Matters

Physical Eloquence: It's a classic movie buff question. Somewhere, right now, in a bar or a video store or on a ticket holders' line, someone is struggling to name a great sequel that's been released in the years since The Godfather, Part Two (1974). In a perfect world, this discussion would end in a half-empty café, with participants singing the praises of the grand and delicate Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater's present-day return to the couple first seen in the 1995 romance, Before Sunrise.

The sequel opens in the renowned Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co., where first-time novelist Jesse Wallace (Ethan Hawke) is giving a reading. The audience is small, mostly press, and they inquire as to the autobiographical nature of his work. They suspect what viewers of Before Sunrise already know: while traveling on a Eurorail pass nine years ago, Jesse fell in love with Celine (Julie Delpy), and spent one night with her in Vienna before flying home to America the next day. As he answers questions, she stands quietly off to the side until he notices her. They exchange affectionate, uncertain greetings, and again, his travel arrangements impose a time limit: Jesse is scheduled to leave for the airport in little over an hour.

Unlike its predecessor, Before Sunset unfolds in real time. Nearly all of Linklater's films have been restricted to a single night or day; excepting last year's crowd-pleasing detour, School of Rock, he's been working up to this film since his debut, Slacker (1991). The writer/director and his stars (who wrote much of their own dialogue and turn in career-best performances), pay close attention to conversational and emotional nuances. Early on, the talk can be rambling and contradictory, but Hawke and Delpy are good enough to convey to the audience what the characters strain to communicate to, or hide from, each other. Jesse's impending departure creates real tension, which is further magnified by the film's sense of place.

Whereas Celine and Jesse were tourists in Vienna, killing time in a church or riding the Ferris wheel seen in 1949's The Third Man (one of the earlier film's many unobtrusive allusions), Paris is Celine's hometown. Here, we are reminded of their separate lives and obligations. Much has occurred since they last met, including a missed reunion appointment in Vienna, as well as marriage and children for one of them. Gone are the colorful poets and gypsy fortunetellers who popped up at regular intervals in Before Sunrise, and gone with them is the youthful ignorance of pain and regret. Most of the Parisians we see are simply going about their own daily routines (smoking, jogging, shopping). The older Jesse and Celine talk to each other almost exclusively, eventually unable to suppress the questions and recriminations they never believed they'd have the chance to voice.

It's no accident, then, that Before Sunset avoids most expected landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, showcasing instead neighborhood cafés or out-of-the-way gardens. The scene in Shakespeare & Co., where owner Sylvia Beach published the notorious first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, reminds us that Jesse and Celine parted ways in Vienna on Bloomsday, 16 June. (Joyce set his masterpiece on that specific date to commemorate the anniversary of his first date with his wife, Nora.) Thus, Jesse's defense of autobiographical fiction reads not as an apology for his professed ignorance of conventionally dramatic subjects such as "violence and... political intrigue," but as an affirmation of Joyce's great theme -- the influence of past experience on human consciousness trying, ironically and heroically, to make sense of the present.

Celine observes, "Memory's a wonderful thing if you don't have to deal with the past." The night in Vienna was a life-changing encounter for both of them, and Before Sunset's stunning second half acknowledges the often dire consequences of such a momentous event. Tense undercurrents darken their early flirting and catching up, and rather than provide relief, an unexpectedly sweeping long shot of the pair walking along the Seine presages the conversation's spiral toward the operatic. By the time Jesse convinces Celine to join him for a boat ride -- it's for tourists, she protests -- the real-time structure has put the audience in their position, anxious to ask the big questions, yet dreading what are sure to be difficult, lacerating answers.

Regardless of their faults (if not because of them), viewers want good things for this couple. We might say that they remind us of our friends or of ourselves, and while that may be true, it denies the actors the credit they deserve. Even in such a talky film, their silences are as memorable as the longest monologues: Jesse cringes after an awkward sexual reference lands with a thud; Celine reaches for him as he stares out a car window, recounting a bad dream, but she pulls back, like a skittish animal, as he turns to face her. Their physical eloquence verges on heartbreaking.

Theories of cinematic representational modes are irrelevant when it comes to a film like this. Like novelist Richard Russo, another self-effacing American artist mining the infinite dramatic gradations of so-called "ordinary" lives, Linklater is generous in ways that can cause us to forget how good he really is. Developing the rhythms, evasions, confessions, accusations, and apologies of Jesse and Celine's conversation in real, mortality-haunted time, Before Sunset captures an articulate naturalism far more difficult to achieve than any CGI shot or Baudrillard-lite philosophy. The film illustrates the beautiful and frustrating complexity of human hearts seeking love and meaning in a life we know to be transient.

John Updike, also a Joyce acolyte and an obsessive chronicler of the fleeting moment, has explained that he revisits the character of Rabbit Angstrom every decade because Rabbit's perspective grants him "a way in" to complications that may otherwise seem overwhelming. What he sees through Rabbit's eyes, the writer admits, is often more interesting than what he perceives with his own. His audience aged with Rabbit, and they came to anticipate his regular revelations about the world they lived in. Jesse and Celine strike me as having this kind of potential: Hawke and Delpy have already said that they were interested in doing another sequel because the characters have stayed with them for so many years. To experience love, loss, loneliness, hope, and grief with them as they continue to age would be a source of great delight.

Sun Times

By Roger Egbert. Nine years have passed since Jesse and Celine met in Vienna and walked all over the city, talking as if there would be no tomorrow, and then promising to meet again in six months. "Were you there in Vienna, in December?" she asks him. Nine years have passed, and they have met again in Paris. Jesse wrote a novel about their long night together, and at a book signing he looked up, and there she was. They begin to talk again, in a rush, before he must leave to catch his flight back to America.

"Before Sunset" continues the conversation that began in "Before Sunrise" (1995), but at a riskier level. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are over 30 now, have made commitments in life, no longer feel as they did in 1995 that everything was possible. One thing they have learned, although they are slow to reveal it, is how rare it is to meet someone you feel an instinctive connection with. They walk out of the bookstore and around the corner and walk, and talk, and the director Richard Linklater films them in long, uninterrupted takes, so that the film feels like it exists in real time.

"Before Sunset" is a remarkable achievement in several ways, most obviously in its technical skill. It is not easy to shoot a take that is six or seven minutes long, not easy for actors to walk through a real city while dealing with dialogue that has been scripted but must sound natural and spontaneous. Yet we accept, almost at once, that this conversation is really happening. There's no sense of contrivance or technical difficulty.

Hawke and Delpy wrote the screenplay themselves, beginning from the characters and dialogue created the first time around by Linklater and Kim Krizan. They lead up to personal details very delicately; at the beginning they talk politely and in abstractions, edging around the topics we (and they) want answers to: Is either one married? Are they happy? Do they still feel that deep attraction? Were they intended to spend their lives together?

There is the feeling, as they discuss how their adult lives are unfolding, that sometimes the actors may be skirting autobiography. Certainly there is an unmistakable truth when Jesse, trying to describe what marriage is like, says "I feel like I'm running a small nursery with someone I used to date."

But the movie is not a confessional, and the characters don't rush into revelations. There is a patience at work, even a reticence, that reflects who they have become. They have responsibilities. They no longer have a quick instinctive trust. They are wary of revealing too much. They are grown-ups, although at least for this afternoon in Paris they are in touch with the open, spontaneous, hopeful kids they were nine years before.

"Before Sunrise" was a remarkable celebration of the fascination of good dialogue. But "Before Sunset" is better, perhaps because the characters are older and wiser, perhaps because they have more to lose (or win), and perhaps because Hawke and Delpy wrote the dialogue themselves. The film has the materials for a lifetime project; like the "7-Up" series, this is a conversation that could be returned to every 10 years or so, as Celine and Jesse grow older.

Delpy worked often with Krzystzof Kieslowski, the Polish master of coincidence and synchronicity, and perhaps it's from that experience that "Before Sunset" draws its fascination with intersecting timelines. When Celine and Jesse parted, they didn't know each other's last names or addresses -- they staked everything on that promise to meet again in six months. We find out what happened in Vienna in December, but we also find out that Celine studied for several years at New York University (just as Delpy did) while Jesse was living there (just as Hawke was). "In the months heading up to my wedding, I was thinking of you," he tells her. He even thought he saw her once, in the deli at 17th and Broadway. She knows the deli. Maybe he did.

What they are really discussing, as they trade these kinds of details, is the possibility that they missed a lifetime they were intended to spent together. Jesse eventually confesses that he wrote his book and came to Paris for a book signing because that was the only way he could think of to find her again. A little later, in a subtle moment of body language, she reaches out to touch him and then pulls back her hand before he sees it.

All this time they are walking and talking. Down streets, through gardens, past shops, into a cafe, out of the cafe, toward the courtyard where she has the flat she has lived in for four years. And it is getting later, and the time for his flight is approaching, just as he had to catch the train in Vienna. But what is free will for, if not to defy our plans? "Baby, you are gonna miss that plane," she says.