Sunday, May 9, 2010
Before Sunset (2004) A Film by Richard Linklater
Sequels, those intolerable addendums that Hollywood regularly churns out in the sole interest of hearty financial returns, have never seen a finer day than Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, a film that rightfully completes and enriches its predecessor in ways that required the span of nine years between the two productions. Before Sunrise concluded with its two short-term lovers making a last second agreement to meet back in Vienna in six months in the same spot, still ignorant of each other's last names, phone numbers, or any means of communication but dead-set on carrying out the plan anyway, because their intimate connection was seemingly too unshakable to fail them. Though one would expect that this is where Linklater would begin the sequel, he opts to leap ahead nine years instead, equaling both the elapsed time since the release of the original and the years ticked away from the lives of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Right from the opening sequence, it is evident that the time passed has made its inevitable mark on the two as well as on the production stamp, a discernment made concrete when Linklater splices antique images of the lovers from the first film amidst the tranquil cinematography of Before Sunset. If Before Sunrise looked lived-in, durable, and immutable, the sequel's wispy patina is like that of a postcard slowly fading away into obscurity, mirroring the weathered state of Jesse and Celine's relationship.
On the coda of his European book tour, Jesse is answering questions in an elegant Parisian bookstore about the ambiguous ending of his successful novel - which, to no one's surprise, is based on the events of Before Sunrise - when he spots Celine peering at him from a nondescript aisle. Her full, curvy features from years before, witnessed in the momentary archival glimpses, have given way to a coarser, thinner bone structure, indicative of not only aging physically but hardening her worldview from a handful of dispassionate experiences and missed opportunities. Indeed, soon enough we learn that this is actually the pair's first meeting since their romantic evening in Vienna (which Celine calls a "one-night-stand" in her waltz in the closing scene, an ostensibly self-effacing jab at herself for all her preoccupations with sex). Life - or more specifically, Celine's grandmother's death - got in the way of her fulfilling her promise to meet Jesse at the specified time and place. A potentially crucial opportunity was muffed, and the two of them have to deal with that through cordial niceties that only serve to mask what is clearly lamentation and heartache underneath, especially for the always amiable and understanding Jesse, who actually did show up in Vienna and was forced to pay the dividends.
All regrets and gentle grudges are tossed aside though, at least at first, while Jesse and Celine agree to catch up before his flight back to the United States. It would take a vegetable not to realize the immediate similarities between this and their previous rendezvous through French streets and cafes, for after the initial small-talk is exchanged, Jesse and Celine get right back to effortless, rambling discussion as if they had never ceased in the first place. They speak about Jesse's notion that people do not change, his experience in a Trappist retreat, Celine's work as a student in New York City during the same time that Jesse lived there, and the nature of aging and responsibility. But what gradually leads to the most personal admissions is when they summarize their current scenarios: Celine has a blasé relationship with a war photographer whose work causes him to be away half the time, and she now affiliates herself with environmental agencies in a half-hearted attempt to cure a hobbled world; Jesse, an established author, has a wife and a son but feels like he's "running a small nursery with someone [he] used to date". As adults invested in routine, they are more guarded and closed-off than before, and are thus less willing to release their emotions, so the conversation at first plods when it finally gets to this seemingly commonplace realm. But once the two hop aboard a tour boat on the Seine in a scene of masterful staging and careful pacing, the river breeze seems to stir up the hitherto concealed layers and the past lovers begin positioning their mundane existence in relation to their idyllic night in Vienna and the liberties it produced. Jesse asks, "Oh, God, why weren't you there, in Vienna?" He knows precisely why, but his real question has more to do with a lifetime of wondering how things would have turned out if she was.
These private revelations continue to crescendo until they reach their peak in an escort car driving back to Celine's apartment. It's a scene that curiously echoes the last moment at the train in Before Sunrise, because it is perceived that this is the final chance for communication before separation once again (the film's rigidly maintained real-time structure allows for no wasted minutes in the face of Jesse's fast-approaching airport deadline). Yet the potent sense of hopefulness in the original has been replaced by confessional hysteria, with Jesse and Celine voicing their feelings in an anarchic display of regret, sadness, anger, and pity. Hawke and Delpy handle the situation beautifully, exploding and regrouping in a matter of seconds, filling the gaps with tentative acts of subtlety - one fleeting moment has Celine reaching her hand out to comfort Jesse as he looks out the window only to pull it back submissively when he turns around. All of the repressed dissatisfaction about the formulaic lives these two spontaneous characters lead comes to the forefront. Perhaps realizing the importance of not letting her out of his grasp once again, Jesse offers to take her to her door, which leads to a tour of the inside of her apartment. Miraculously, Jesse and Celine manage a quaint reversal of their previous emotional outpouring. There seems to be a mutual acknowledgment of their success in overcoming the hurdle that spelled failure last time. They do not leave each other, and one gets the sense that Jesse isn't planning to, as he indifferently delays his escort. Maybe they exchange numbers this time. Maybe they realize they really should be together. Regardless of the end result, Linklater has provided an utterly complete and stirring portrait of two harmonious souls in discordant stride.