J is coming up on a birthday and not taking it so well, and when I told her she’s very clearly in the prime of her life, she wasn’t consoled. Well, I didn’t know her then, she said. Whenever then was. I asked, “What, were you better?” I meant to sound skeptical, but I’m not sure she read me right.
A week or so ago, the same despondent air was hanging over us as we slumped, pouting and silent, into a Vietnamese restaurant in Berkeley. We’d just come from the new Richard Linklater movie and were a little shaken up.
Before Sunset is as much the proverbial roller coaster ride as any self-respecting summer blockbuster should be, and it’s only a budgetless art-house romance flick. And a sequel to boot. It reunites Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprising their roles from Before Sunrise), who nine years ago met on a train and shared an indelible night in Vienna. Their new outing, however, resonates much more deeply. It’s a sad and loving film—preoccupied with time’s relentless march against possibility, but brave enough to worry about what is still left to look forward to.
I’d suggested a different film, but J was keen on seeing this one; she may have thought that it would be a good test for us.
So the theatre lights dimmed and we caught up with Jesse in Paris, on the last stop of his book tour. Nestled comfortably among the shelves at Shakespeare & Co., he is hedging about how true his novel is to its obvious source material: that meteoric affair with Celine. The crowd, not huge but attentive, wants to know what most of us wondered after the first film: Did they, in the untold end, get together? If you think so, Jesse says, you’re a romantic. If you don’t, you’re a cynic.
That’s Celine’s cue, and the inevitable reunion is so understated as to be exhilarative. (After years of honing, Linklater now truly owns his instinct for potent restraint. His last picture, The School of Rock, succeeded precisely because of this control; it might have been a mugging, sentimental disaster otherwise.) Jesse has a plane to catch, but gosh, it’s good to see her, and, well, they have time for a walk, right?
Away we go. Not far, really, just an amble through a few arrondissements, just a pair of comely young people roaming the world capital of romance, plying the memory and mystery of their time together: maybe they were meant for each other, and maybe they had blown it.
Celine and Jesse’s long conversation is the privilege of familiar souls, and it advances, circuitously but without swerving, from flirtatious banter to bitterness and beyond. Before we know it, the veils concealing their yearnings and hurts have quietly fallen away and been left behind in some cobblestone alley or other. There really isn’t time to go back for them, or need.
But there is concern for what becomes of lovers, at once cynical and romantic, who don’t get their timing right, or—to use an expression that actually seems appropriate in this case—don’t screw up the courage to make a life together. When your soul sets to someone else’s, it’s for good. But is that a good thing?
The script, written by Linklater and his two stars, takes something as untidy as the prospects for romance in modern life and makes a tidy work of it. Despite its literally conversational structure, its anxious saunter, Before Sunset is a meticulously controlled movie. Delpy and Hawke measure out their characters’ vulnerabilities, their compatibility, with calm precision.
Linklater is one of the few American directors who can make such circumlocution feel natural, lived-in. He’s also one of the few who is willing to stay in touch with his characters in this way. He acknowledges the influence of Truffaut and of British New Waver Lindsay Anderson, both of whom returned to favourite characters—Truffaut in his Antoine Doinel films and Anderson in his Mick Travis films.
I would also suggest an evocation of Bergman, and, say, Scenes From a Marriage. Maybe that’s pushing it, but Linklater, commendably, isn’t shy about firing off one of Bergman’s not-so-secret weapons: the human face. It’s what makes the brief, wordless flashbacks here so powerful; he shows how Jesse and Celine’s faces have changed, and those changes are striking. (The subjective observations that this technique has elicited from critics have been varied and quite illuminating.)
Over the shrimp rolls, I tried to draw J out and get her to admit that she’d been paying attention to what I thought was funny or poignant in the film. What we learned about Jesse and Celine corresponded in some ways to what we were learning about each other. In that, we were hardly alone. A woman in the row behind us sighed and sobbed with heartfelt recognition for most of the movie.
Before Sunset is aptly titled: it takes place more or less in real time, and as the Parisian light warms, it also wanes. In this way, at least, cinema can be as immediate as life, as cruelly and beautifully fleeting. Its prime is always in the present. J and I agreed that as soon as Celine and Jesse left us, we missed them. Had it been like that the first time around? Well, you can always go back to a movie, but never again can you be who you were then, when you first saw it.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every other Thursday.