dir: Richard Linklater
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I'm not a fan, even remotely, of romantic movies. Romantic movies generally have the same effect on me intellectually as Draino would have on a human's gastrointestinal system upon consumption. I doubt anyone's going to be surprised by that. Hey, I'm not some stoic, repressed, unemotional automaton. I don't work in an abattoir nailgunning creatures in the head day in day out for a living or for fun; I haven't 'shut down' emotionally because of my second tour of duty in 'Nam where I put my hand in a pile of goo that used to be my best friend's face. I am, in short, a product of the current age, not overly apathetic about stuff, but not too interested in getting sweaty over anything either.
All in all, I am clearly not the demographic intended for anything explicitly shelved under the Romance section of the local franchise video rental chain. You know where I mean, be it your local Burstblocker or LeproZYDVD, where they have over fifty copies of the latest Adam Sandler / Drew Barrymore flick, and no copies of any films by Federico Fellini. Yeah, I know, I'm a snob when it comes to movies, so sue me.
After checking with my lawyers, actually, could you not sue me, instead? All these lawsuits are starting to take their toll. That's a very long and pointless preamble to what I'm trying to say: despite the fact that I generally loathe romantic films, I often find myself moved in successful dramatic or otherwise movies or programs. Hell, I've cried like an abandoned child during episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, multiple times, fer Christ's sake. Generally when something deliberately tries to pull my heartstrings, when two cute yuppies get together, are forced apart by arbitrary circumstance, and then thrust back together again by some ridiculous contrivance of fate, or destiny, or angels, or the 'power' of love, I get bored or angry, not blubbery.
Linklater's film Before Sunrise wasn't like that. Coming out as it did 9 years ago it was a revelation to me, a truly beautiful and sweet film that didn't give me diabetes with a saccharine overload. It gave me two imperfect characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in a situation I could completely believe getting to know each other in ways most films usually summarise in montage sequences. Being so amazed to meet each other and 'get' each other so spontaneously, having only a few hours to spend with each other they try to cram in more conversation and ideas in that space of time than most people discuss in a year. They are young and impetuous, but there is nothing desperate about their interactions, nothing sleazy, nothing defective. They're just amazed and grateful to have had the great fortune to have met up with each other in such a random manner.
Above their heads looms the knowledge that they only have a few hours to spend together, which makes their hurried closeness all the more poignant. And at film's end, after we've followed them through the streets of Vienna as they talk about life, love, sex, being French, being young, at least in my case we're as in love with them as they are with each other. The film earns those feelings of goodwill towards the characters in ways most movies never bother to do. That's not to say it's a perfect film experience. I utterly love it, but I can see how it could bore the fingernails off of some people. You know, the kind of people who use the term 'it was like a play' as a criticism when denigrating a movie. And perhaps not a lot happens. And maybe the characters are a bit neurotic. And that Ethan Hawke just makes you want to punch him in the face sometimes.
The reason why all this needs, nay, demands mentioning is that someone that loved the first film is likely to love as well its sequel Before Sunset. Anyone who went to the first film and sat their enduring it painfully in the hope that it would get them into the pants of the person they went there with is likely to endure this one as well, with as little reward. If you hate the idea of a movie where two people talk and talk then this is not for you. This is purely for those who loved the first film and want to find out what happened in the lives of these wonderful characters. Anyone unfamiliar with Before Sunrise wouldn't have any reason to care about the characters in Before Sunset, and wouldn't know why to care, so it would be an exercise in futility even more pronounced than that which their general daily lives represent for them to see this.
Nine years have elapsed since our heroes first met. Jesse, having written a novel about his experiences in Before Sunrise, is on the last stop of his European promotional book - signing tour in Paris. During an in-store appearance at a Parisian bookstore, he happens to see Celine standing to the side watching him dole out little witticisms to a French public that largely, I would have thought, couldn't possibly care less. Somewhat stunned at each other's presence, they embark upon a similar journey as they did in the first film, except in this case they've had nine years to think about that night, and nine years of living that means they're not exactly the same people they were back then. That is as true for the characters as it is for the actors and the director himself. All three have taken time to craft a lovely, worthy, meaningful and thoroughly enjoyable movie to compliment the original. There is an appreciable amount of themselves invested in the characters, which is not to say that I confuse the lives of the characters with the lives of the actors.
There are enough flashes, however, of thoughts and ideas which are as real to the characters as we assume they are to the actors, who worked together on the screenplay with Linklater. As with the first film, the looming deadline of Jesse's departure provides a framing device and an impetus with which they try to explain their lives to each other as quickly as possible. Much of the spectrum of human emotion is covered in what they end up covering: regret over not meeting again as they'd planned to; different feelings of acceptance or dissatisfaction with their professional lives and their relationships, the near-misses where they could have almost bumped into each other again. There's anger, frustration, hope, optimism, fatalism, the acknowledgment of the tenuousness of their connection but also the important role it has played in their lives, both positive and negative. They both broach the idea that had they met again perhaps it never would have worked out, but the night spent together becomes the more idealised in their memories even more so because of that very fact.
I guess not everyone has had a time in their lives where they have a brief encounter with someone that has had a profound effect on the rest of their lives. I'm not talking about having sex with a stranger in a nightclub toilet or in an alleyway; though I'm sure they can be quite profound experiences too, if your memory can retain them through the haze of booze and drugs afterwards. Jesse and Celine aren't star-crossed lovers. They are not 'meant' to be together because of destiny or fate or Cupid's wayward arrows. They met, they parted, and now having found each other again, their lives irrevocably different from their first encounter, we wonder whether the passion or the strength of their connection is enough to surmount all other modest obstacles.
The difference between people in their twenties going through these experiences, juxtaposed with the same people going through different enough yet still similar conflicts in their thirties is a rare joy to behold. I love watching (decently made) films where we get to revisit characters years down the track. Recently I can think of the films by Canadian director Denys Arcand where he reunited a cast to play the same lovably roguish characters (The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions) with many years in between. The amazing documentary series that started with 7 Up (not the fucking drink), with another film following each seven (or more) years after possesses, though obviously within a fundamentally different genre, a similar emotional and intellectual trajectory for a viewer.
To not labour the point too much, I will say of the actors: Julie Delpy is luminous, and puts in a strong performance, and Ethan Hawke, whilst his usual perpetually on the verge of being annoying self, shows a range and vulnerability that you don't associate with him usually.
The actors and their characters work beautifully together, which is the most important factor. I don't know if it is love that connects them. This is the rare film where they don't need to actually say it explicitly for us to get it. They don't have to say, with trembling lip, 'I, I wuv you' for the audience to go 'awwww' and act as if someone is holding up fluffy kittens to the camera. They see something in each other, they respond in unbidden, unconscious ways to each other. And their talk reveals as much as it hides, though they become more and more honest with each other the closer they get to the deadline. Their body language is perfectly played, where unconsciously they move to touch without knowing it, and stop themselves when they realise what they're doing. There's an impossible sweetness to it all that makes me so embarrassed for even going on about it in such detail that it makes me want to punch myself in my own nuts.
Goddamn. That cleared the sinuses.
They walk through some Parisian alleyways, sit in a cafe for a while, walk through a park, ride on a boat along the Seine, talking constantly as the movie unfolds in 'real' time, in that it seems to be only a couple of hours, as opposed to the stretch of time in the first one. The camera follows them or precedes them, keeping us as intimately involved as if we are participants. There is one amazing scene, not for anything that happens, but more from the point of view where I wonder how cinematographer Lee Daniel (who also shot Before Sunrise and shoots most of Linklater's movies) managed to film it. I'm sure it's simple to someone who knows more about filming stuff than humble little moi, but the scene where they climb a spiral staircase and the camera follows them in an unending spiral upwards is pretty impressive. Only in a geeky, technical way, which goes against the entire point of the film, but hey, it was worth noting, at least from my point of view. Of course I'm sure many of you reading this have just nodded off like senile grandmothers, and you've only just revived yourselves by accidentally smacking your heads on the cold glass of your monitors.
Wakey wakey. Ah, that's better. All in all I very much enjoyed the movie on a number of levels, most importantly that of making me fall in love with the characters all over again. Their lives felt real, their experiences felt real, and the resolution could not have been more perfect. I don't always love the films that Richard Linklater makes, and some I've downright hated. Here he recalls enough of why I adored Sunrise so much, and improves upon it in a number of ways and gives me another chapter to think about and feel grateful for. For in truth I am a romantic, passionately so, I just wait impatiently for romantic films to come along that don't make me want to kill people. This is definitely one of them.
8 times out of 10 that I wonder, if things had been different, if me and Julie Delpy ever really had a chance…
'I'm designed to feel slightly dissatisfied' - Jesse, Before Sunset