Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 30, 2004 12:44 am 
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Suave sequel: birth of a new genre

Before Sunset is a movie that may look superficial, romantic, weepy, and crowd-pleasing but on the contrary is original, smart, analytical, and challenging. It stands by itself but it’s richer seen in relation to Before Sunrise, made nine years earlier, of which it’s the subtler sequel. The characters and the actors are older, more experienced and more sophisticated. It’s got a documentary element, reminiscent of Michael Apted’s wonderful 7 Up, 14 Up, series, in which Apted revisits the same cross section of English people every seven years: it’s about two people who’ve grown older and have different lives. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who also starred in Before Sunrise, don’t have to pretend to be nine years older in this (fictional) sequel; they are. They’re only thirty-three now, but Hawke has the ravaged gauntness his breakup with Uma Thurman seems to have imposed on him; he's soulful, tempered, no longer the bright-eyed boy. Delpy is more mature, less angelic, more businesslike, but still beautiful.

Before Sunset is a leaner film than Before Sunrise. It’s real-time, and without frills. Venues or backgrounds are simpler. Jesse and Céline largely just walk and talk. But it's all in reference to that earlier experience. The pair have a history. They live in the present, but their dialogue also implies a Proustian pursuit of "Lost Time."

In these nine years Hawke and Delpy have become more accomplished actors; they're less self-conscious, but more self-aware. The talk flows more effortlessly. The continuity of the scenes is a seamless tour de force almost as if this were all a single take like Sokorov's Russian Ark.

The premise is this: the couple's previous meeting on a train and their all-night idyl in Vienna nine years before chronicled in Before Sunrise is a given. They were to meet again six months later, but they did not, and not having exchanged coordinates they couldn't contact each other. Now Jesse has appeared on the radar screen by publishing a bestselling novel in the US and doing a reading and a signing in Paris. (Hawke’s real life identity fits here, since he’s published several books.) Suddenly as he’s coming to the end of his talk, Céline appears outside the window of the bookstore (which is one every American in Paris knows: Shakespeare & Company). He’s supposed to go to the airport in a couple of hours, but his bags are packed and a car's ready, and he and Céline agree to go and talk. She leads him to a café called Le Pure. (This is real time, but not real space: the places where they go are far apart.) Then they take a boat ride on the Seine; finally they get in the car and wind up at Céline’s apartment which turns out to be in a lovely enclave where her neighbors are together outside having a party. . .

A movie in real time consisting mostly of conversation is impossible to summarize: it would take twenty pages. But it does emerge that both still think about each other a lot; that meeting nine years before remains a moment of crucial limportance in both their lives: the flame still burns bright. Jesse did go back to Vienna six months later in the station to meet Céline as they’d promised, but her grandmother was buried on that day and she couldn’t be there. Later he says that perhaps his dream of romantic love was shattered forever by her failure to appear. They rue the fact that they didn’t exchange addresses or phone numbers.

There isn’t flirting or a developing attraction, a growing physical intimacy, as in Before Sunrise, because that's already happened: Jesse and Céline spend most of the film talking about that earlier meeting and how it has haunted them and dominated their lives. Gradually it comes out (particularly during the car ride that leads to where Céline lives) that her current relationship is limited and his marriage is largely sexless, redeemed only by his adoration of his four-year-old son.

She pretends not to remember that they made love that night in Vienna nine years before. Perhaps what this means is that in a sense their sudden passion never really was consummated, because their affinity was far too great for one night's sex to satisfy.

There's little touching or kissing but there doesn’t have to be. It’s obvious that this is a climactic reunion for both of them and the attraction is as strong as ever, probably stronger – except that there are obstacles. They’re not young and free any more. They have lives, commitments, involvements. . .

What will happen? As the film ends, its obvious Jessie is quite happily going to miss his plane. But while Linklater & Company keep us guessing, the partial answer that comes is quite charming.

Before Sunset is a superb sequel. It’s touching but surprisingly unsentimental. And it’s as graceful a piece of filmmaking as you could ever see, with the gracefulness of art that conceals artifice. Richard Linklater is one of the most interesting younger American directors. His work is authentic and personal, but has real range, from the slacker movies through the romantic encounters of Delpy and Hawke and the tight theatrical drama Tape to the inspired philosophical musings and fresh animation of Waking Life. Hawke has been involved in four of Linklater’s movies; he and Linklater are soulmates and brothers. Delpy is an essential collaborator in the Sunset/Sunrise sequence because she too is a writer and created her own dialogue.

The chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is too obvious to mention. . It's obvious also the audience would like another sequel, and so would the actors. It's only a question of when. The inventive Richard Linklater has given birth to a new genre: the real time sequel. In Waking Life, we briefly see the couple talking in bed. Perhaps that’s a preview of part three.


Jonathan Rosenbaum has set the film in its context in The Chicago Reader.

©Chris Knipp 2004

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