Monday, October 21, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Before Sunset" (2004)

In preparation for the arrival on video of "Before Midnight" -- which most of my local colleagues insists belongs among the year's best films -- I realized I hadn't seen the middle film in its entirety. I recently watched "Before Sunrise" again, and was again ensorceled by its depiction of youthful aspirations and intensity.

Set nine years later when the characters are in their early 30s, "Before Midnight" is a film about gravitational pull. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) meet again for a single day's encounter, this time in Paris. He has written a best-selling book about their meeting in Vienna, with a barely-disguised account of how they came together in a lush meeting of souls.

As you will recall, they vowed to meet again at the train station six months later. In the original version of his book, Jesse wrote that they did meet again, began a serious romance, got married and discovered everyday life with each other did not hold the allure of that one magical day. Céline notes this is the most realistic outcome, but rather downbeat. Jesse agrees, and confides that his agent convinced him to leave it out, ending the book on the same ambiguous note as the movie.

In reality, he made the appointment and was crushed when she didn't. She couldn't because of the death of her grandmother, but I suspect that she might not have shown even without a good excuse. You'll remember that it was he who first proposed getting off the train in Vienna, and in writing the book it's obvious that he is the more outgoing and proactive of the two. Her lack of the same level of commitment -- which she underscores by pretending to forget whether they had intercourse or not -- seems like a rather transparent attempt to gain the upper hand.

The acting is once again so splendid and naturalistic, and director Richard Linklater's role here is mostly to disappear and have his follow these people around the city as the stroll through gloomy-gorgeous Parisian streets, sip coffee in a cafe or ride a boat through the canal. The dialogue feels organic and unscripted, which is a testament to how good it is. Delpy and Hawke both received a screenwriting credit along with Linklater, and the trio scored an Oscar nomination for their efforts.

Jumping to the end of this movie, it becomes clear that neither of their lives have measured up to the majesty of their time in Vienna. Céline has been stuck in a parade of "bleah" relationships that she secretly undermines because has no romantic hope for herself. Jesse is trapped in a loveless marriage that he only stays in because of his devotion to their son. "I feel like I'm running a small-time daycare with this person who I used to date," he sums up, miserably.

After performing a guitar waltz that she wrote about their "one night stand," Céline does an enticing little dance and lip synch to a Nina Simone song. Clearly, she is luring him in, even while pushing him away: "Baby, you're doing to miss your plane." "I know," he responds, and we sense he knew from the moment he saw her in the bookstore that he hadn't planned on flying back to his life in New York City.

In some ways, the ending of this movie is both more and less ambiguous than the previous one. The audience is left to their own conclusions about what happens next, but the cues are there. Near the end Jesse confides that he only wrote the book in hopes that it would reconnect him with Céline.

Fate has not been kind enough to get them back together on its own -- despite learning they lived in New York over the same period of time. So Jesse has made one last, desperate attempt to find the woman of his dreams. Being a cynical, ironic Generation X hipster he recognizes his endeavor as ludicrous. But he can't resist a chance at catching lightning in a bottle.

For Céline, being pursued across continents and being immortalized in a work of art are her lifeline to the possibility of a deep, meaningful relationship -- something she's mostly given up on.

Even without knowing that the third movie resumes their journey after several years of marriage, the compass was already pointing in the direction these characters would take. In "Before Sunset," like real life, you must work your own magic.

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