Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Before Sunrise & Before Sunset

Continued from the review of P.S.

Last weekend I spent some time trying to figure out just why I had not yet started my review of either of these films. I realized that because I like these movies so darn much, it is hard to place myself at a critical distance. So here we go—me reviewing two movies that I not only like, but kinda love.

Having seen Before Sunrise when it first came out in 1995, I had not seen the film since. As already mentioned, I rented Before Sunset, the sequel, a few weekends ago, but after viewing Sunset, I realized how badly I wanted to revisit the original. I suspect that most video/DVD renters will find it hard to watch one without the other.

Before Sunrise features two incredibly “young” characters: naïve, fearless, and romantic. Delpy’s character Celine, in particular, evidences an effecting, if rather clichéd, romantic sensibility. Her free flowing hair and flowy dress reflect the open and carefree way in which she views the world.

Contrasting her softness is hard-edged Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke. He’s your typical rebel, kind of angry with the world though you suspect he has always lived a rather comfortable middle-class/upper middle class life. What the two share in common is wit, intelligence, education, and a sense of adventure.

The simple plot: after talking on a train traveling across Europe, Jesse convinces Celine to spend the night wandering around Vienna. Jesse, you see, is leaving Europe the following morning. For the rest of the movie, the couple talks about life, love, and their fear of the future as they visit a number of picturesque spots.

Part of the charm of the film stems from the lovely setting, and I don’t only mean that Vienna is lovely. In fact, Jesse and Celine rarely visit famous sites. Rather, they enjoy conversation as they walk past a street performance, as they sit at a table on a boat, or even as they sit together on a crate in an alley. Beautiful cinematography and the simplicity and artistry of each shot heightens the appeal of the film in general.

Watching this film again (and again, actually—I watched each movie twice that weekend), I couldn’t quite get my head wrapped around the through line of the script. Jesse and Celine talk about so many disparate and randomly connected topics that to actually track the narrative in some clear linear way proves difficult. The dialogue shifts as external factors intervene. Sometimes topics of conversation are dropped as circumstances dictate: disappointing during really interesting conversations but certainly true to life.

Yet one can track the progression of the film in the increasing intimacy of Jesse and Celine. As Jesse reveals vulnerability in his admittance that he came to Europe for a girl who promptly dumped him and Celine describes her love for her grandmother, these characters move beyond the young adult clichés of films like Reality Bites and that ilk. There’s something so natural to their conversation: hasn’t everyone at some point surprised themselves by participating in a shockingly honest conversation with a stranger at a coffee house or other typical locale? Though Celine and Jesse are not afraid to challenge each other, their palpable chemistry electrifies the screen.

Before Sunset shares many characteristics of the first film: featuring one romantic and one jaded person in conversation in a foreign city. Yet this time Celine is the jaded character and the city is Paris. Jesse, having written a book about the night he spent with Celine in Vienna in order to find his lost love, achieves his goal when Celine wanders into his book reading at a café.

As a writer and director, Richard Linklater’s artistry grew from the first to the second movie. Filming in real time, Linklater follows Jesse and Celine as they walk for entire scenes without a single cut. He also allows the beauty of Paris to shine but always in the background. Celine and Jesse stand apart from their surroundings in a way that distinguishes this film from the first.

The screenplay, written in collaboration with Hawke and Delpy, offers another “moment in time” look at two people trying to understand their lives, as in the first film. Yet the script for the sequel is much tighter, offering careful relationship development and impressive depth.

The actors deliver incredibly natural performances, delivering each line with an unfaltering sincerity. I’m not surprised that relationship rumors developed around Hawke and Delpy: you like Celine and Jesse so much that you want the actors to find the same happiness themselves.

While the first film sometimes avoided difficult conversations by allowing the external world to distract from the characters, Before Sunset refuses to diverge from Celine and Jesse for a moment. In fact, when Jesse meets one of Celine’s neighbors, the scene stands out because another actor has intruded on what is otherwise an incredibly intimate two-character film. In essence, in the second film Linklater evidences greater confidence in his actors, the script, and his control of the look of the film.

My favorite scene? The two actors walk up a circular staircase to Celine’s apartment. Everything about this scene is perfect: the building, the lighting, the awkwardness of the moment, and the assuredness of the couple (knowing but not acknowledging to what they are entering). No words are spoken, but a conversation takes place between the characters nevertheless. Awesome.

I cannot remember how I reacted after seeing Before Sunrise ten years ago, but I cannot believe the film did not inspire me to travel to Europe, find a random guy to hang with, and simply experience life as a person without responsibility or obligation. I mean, what was wrong with me that I didn’t immediately embrace life? Of course, I continue to be a person without the responsibility of children or the obligation of tremendous debt, so one might think the film could work its same magic upon me today.

Yet I found myself connecting so much more to the sequel. Celine’s frustration about dating, her inability to find the same love that she experienced with Jesse, and his description of his marriage touched me profoundly. Writing about this film is difficult because it has become personal. The first film seemed remote while the sequel moved me, as if I can recognize the people in Before Sunrise but I know the people in Before Sunset.

Jesse’s own refusal to forget Celine travels into dangerous fairy tale territory: in ten years, he has not forgotten the girl with whom he spent one evening. Yet when one considers that their relationship connects each character to a time of hope, anticipation, and naïvete, perhaps Jesse’s clinging to the memory of Celine is as much about a desire for youth as it is about a desire for a woman.

In the other three films I watched over this particular weekend (P.S., The Woodsman, and Wimbledon), the narrative favored one partner in the love relationship over the other. The lover served as a tool to develop the character of the beloved. Yet Before Sunrise and Before Sunset remain remarkably egalitarian. Jesse and Celine both lean upon and support the other, and our allegiance resides equally with both members of the couple.

As for feminism, Celine appears to be a self-described feminist. In a quote from the first film, “You know, I have this awful paranoid thought that feminism was mostly invented by men so that they could like, fool around a little more,” she demonstrates her awareness of the social implications of gender. Yet the most remarkable thing about this movie is its handling of gender. Celine and Jesse don’t run into the usual nonsense of gender difference. They are attracted both to those things about the other that are different and those things that match. Is that the trick? Not being afraid of difference?

Perhaps Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are magical simply because they capture the wonder and excitement of the initial stages of love with honesty and conviction. Meeting each other, Celine and Jesse realize the possibilities in life; the audience experiences some of this vicariously as well. I can’t help but wonder what will happen when the couple actually attempt to live through time, boredom, and the routines inherent in life. Perhaps this will be the subject of the third film in the series. I’ll be first in line at the movie theatre.


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