Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Late to the Party #4: Before Sunrise & Before Sunset (1995, 2004)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

While it may not be my favorite genre, there are many good romantic comedies out there.  Off the top of my head, a few of my favorites include: (500) Days of Summer, Love, Actually, Some Like it Hot, and Crazy. Stupid. Love.  However, I can't as readily think of any good romantic dramas.  There's a much higher degree of difficulty that comes with the romantic drama -- without a laugh, it's easy for all of that romance to feel cheesy, overwrought, or melodramatic.  Two romance films that seemed to be the exception were Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which frequently get praised for their level of naturalism and avoidance of the common pitfalls of the romantic drama.  Getting to the series has been on my to-do list for a very long time, yet despite all of the assurances that I'd love it, I always managed to find something else to watch when I had free time.  Well, the upcoming DVD release of the third installment in the series, Before Midnight, finally prompted me to watch the first two, and I'm happy to report that they're just as lovely as promised.

What a beautiful and sad feeling it is to know that you'll only do something once.  Before Sunrise is all about that feeling, telling the story of two people who have a chance encounter and know that they can only spend one night together before parting ways.  The film opens with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) riding on the same train to Vienna.  After moving her seat to get away from a noisy couple distracting her from reading, Celine and Jesse strike up a conversation, and when the train arrives at Jesse's stop, he convinces her to get off with him and walk around the city.  This might sound like the kind of generic meet-cute that drives many films of its ilk, but Before Sunrise elevates past that because of how natural it feels.  It takes this random encounter and puts a spin on it, almost saying "what if this really happened"?

The easygoing nature of Jesse and Celine's initial encounter stretches through the entire film.  This is helped by Hawke and Delpy, whose organic chemistry really sells the mix of hesitancy and intrigue that both characters have regarding each other.  There's a scene early in the film in a record shop, where the camera just observes the two of them stealing glances at each other, one pair of eyes looking away just as the other finds its target.  It's entrancing to watch this play out, almost like a game, and although it's a still shot, the whole thing is absolutely electric.  For as exhilarating as that wordless scene is, the true spark of the film comes from the dialogue.  Linklater's script has a rambling feel to it -- the film is basically one long conversation segmented by varying locations -- and that'd be a problem if the dialogue wasn't so strong.  Instead of rely on incidents to drive the story forward, the film leans on Jesse and Celine just talking, and through these conversations, you learn so much about them.  You don't discover Jesse's cynicism through conflict, he just talks about his worldview after the two get approached by a fortuneteller.  Funny, engaging, profound -- there's a different gem for everyone to find in the interactions between the two leads.  For me, the scene where Jesse theorizes that people are so self-loathing because they always have to be around themselves, saying "I've never done anything where I wasn't in attendance," hit me particularly hard.  It packs an even bigger punch in the final shots, showing the city during the day, and how it takes on a different feeling without the magic of Jesse and Celine's presence.  The bond between the two of them is extremely relateable, and their separation at the end of the film is quite moving.  They agree to reunite at the same spot in 6 months, but as the credits roll, you can't help but feeling like any one of life's vicissitudes could thwart their plans.

And as we learn in Before Sunset, the two of them never did reunite as they promised.  The film picks back up 9 years later, where Jesse wrote a bestselling book based on the events in Sunrise and Celine is married and living in Paris.  Jesse is in Paris for a book signing, and Celine, after reading about his upcoming visit in the newspaper, decides to visit him.  Before Sunrise stood well on its own, but it's here in Before Sunset where the series goes from excellent to a monumental work of art, picking up the pieces from the first film and continuing to build them beautifully.

Like Sunrise, this one is a whole lot of walking and talking, yet the substance is completely different.  Where the first film was all about possibility, the presiding feeling over the sequel is regret.  As two complementary pieces, the films subtly point out the differences between being in your 20s and being in your 30s.  The conversations in Sunrise were all about Jesse and Celine ruminating on life itself, but the discussions in Sunset are mostly about their lives, almost as if time has dulled the skyward-looking, meditative nature within their younger selves.  Both seem to be changed by their experiences, but their underlying disposition is still the same, with Jesse being a bit of a cynic and Celine being more of a romantic dreamer.

Sunset is also haunted by the idea of memory.  So many of the conversations are about how memories form and what purpose they serve.  There's a deep longing to return to old memories that mixes with the frustrations of the expectations that those memories set.  9 years passed between these films, both within the story and outside of it, and Linklater smartly plays with this passage of time.  Near the beginning of the film, Celine takes Jesse to task for romanticizing their night in the book, stating he wrote that they had sex, when she claims that they didn't.  Jesse then insists that they did, and they go back and forth until neither is really certain what happened on that night so long ago.  Because I saw the second film the day after I watched the first one, I had a more vivid recollection of the events (it's never explicitly shown in the first film, but we're supposed to think that they did have sex), yet for people who had to wait 9 years to get a sequel, they probably had the same difficulty recalling what happened that the characters do.  The film has a few more instances of these kind of brilliant callbacks, like how in the first film, Jesse is about to launch into a story, but he prefaces it by asking "do you believe in reincarnation"?  Celine replies that she does, but when Jesse offhandedly asks the same thing in the second film, she says "no."  It's played like neither of them remember their initial conversation, and that Celine has just changed over time, to the point where some of her worldviews have shifted.

Once again, Sunset is stylistically sumptuous, like the first film.  Although it's shot a bit differently -- the warmer Paris contrasting with the cold, muted Vienna -- there's still a use of long takes to capture the unfolding conversations.  The same thoughtful, nuanced, and naturalistic dialogue is still there; and you become easily hypnotized by the words being spoken, falling back into familiar rhythms as easily as Jesse and Celine do.  Yet here, there's more baggage to their conversations, weighing the whole thing down with an aching solemnity.  As much as relationships end positively in stories, Before Sunset is more realistic about these sorts of things, and real life is much less neat than the movies.  What we got in Sunrise was only a glimpse at these people's lives, and their change over the course of 9 years goes to show how hard it is to arc out the path of somebody's life.

The arc of the film itself is beautiful though, concluding as Jesse and Celine have winded down their time together and end up at Celine's apartment.  Celine plays a song on the guitar that she wrote about their original night together, and it's a crushing wave of catharsis after about 70 minutes of barely restrained longing and loneliness.  That scene alone gives Before Sunset the edge over Before Sunrise.  But aside from that, while it may not have the beautiful romanticism of the first installment, Before Sunset's exploration of the overwhelming sadness behind missed opportunities eventually overtakes you.  I could easily just leave the series at that ending, with the uncertainty of whether or not Jesse decides to miss his flight to stay with Celine, but I'm excited to see Before Midnight, especially since it's basically the best reviewed film of the year.  With these films, Linklater has created something really powerful and ambitious, like Michael Apted's Up series for American audiences, tracking the trajectories of two people who occasionally collide and leave indelible marks on each other's lives.

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