Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Before Sunset

Dir. Richard Linklater

Assuming you're over the age of 13, chances are you've had one of those moments where you've either overheard someone saying, or found yourself grumbling, the phrase “its just not like the movies”. Projected on to millions of screens every year are images of happiness, love, and the great metaphysical plateau of peace. The scene where the guy runs through the airport to profess his love to the girl he met a few days ago is the cliché of the century, among many other equally sappy, highly repetitious moments in cinema. But every so often a romantic film comes around that breaks the mold. The last 10 years have yielded a few notables including Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, and Richard Linklater's Before Sunset. Of those three, Linklater's is, technically, the least progressive: it doesn't have a score composed by Jon Brion; it is not starring a comedic actor in a break through dramatic role, and it creates no divide between reality and fiction. In fact, Before Sunset is about as simple as film making gets. It is an authentic piece of romantic realism that unfolds naturally and beautifully like a summer day in Paris.

Before Sunset is, in fact, the follow-up to Linklater's 1995 motion picture Before Sunrise, which details an evening spent between the two main characters: Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke).The sequel is an 80 minute, real-time, conversation between the two former lovers which spends surprisingly little of its time recounting the love affair. Jesse is in Paris doing a signing for his new book which, as it turns out, is about the night he and Celine spent together in Vienna nine years earlier. Celine hears about the book signing and arrives to meet Jesse. The rest of the film is straightforward: long steadicam shots of Jesse and Celine walking, or sitting, or riding a boat, or in the back seat of a car, and talking. Throughout the entirety of the film you never believe that you are watching anything other than a real conversation between two real people. Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Delpy and Hawke who, working together before on Before Sunrise, have chemistry. Not in the very Hollywood-esque sense of the word, as in “Boy, Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansen look great making out on screen. They have great chemistry!” but in the way that Hawke and Delpy actually make you believe that they were one night lovers who haven't seen each other for nine years. The dialog arc is masterful and true. It begins simply enough with “How have you been?”s and “What have you been up to?” platitudes but quickly falls into more intimate discussions about sex, religion, saving the world, and finally the respective characters' own disastrous personal lives, and how they both regret not seeing each other before this day in Paris, 2004. The film ends with Jesse sitting on a couch in Celine's apartment while she does a silly dance to the manic-depressive music of Nina Simone and tells him he's going to miss his plane. He smiles and says “I know.”

In cinema it takes real confidence to be simple. While some of Linklater's other efforts, such as A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, have garnered him the double edged title of 'pretentious', he is not a director of singular talent. Before Sunset is an exercise in control. It is a tribute to how complicated we make our own lives and how, despite the things we do or whatever we tell ourselves, many of us end up on the short end of the stick, having been placed there through a combination of our own actions and our own lack of actions, not to mention the myriad of circumstances outside of our control. During the film's cathartic moment, which is ironically enough it's most claustrophobic, with Celine screaming at Jesse while his driver takes the two to Celine's apartment, she confesses that she in unable to love anymore saying how “reality and love are like a contradiction to me”. She is furious at Jesse because she believes that, because he has a wife and kids, he is happy. Jesse confides in her that, despite having reasons to be happy (he is a published, best-selling novelist and a father) he is miserable. He doesn't love his wife and even up to his wedding day he couldn't stop thinking about Celine. On the film's slow descent towards its enigmatic conclusion they both manage to find comfort in their mutual misery, as if knowing that someone else you feel inexplicably linked to is also miserable can make a person feel less alone.

Before Sunset is about a lot of things. In the beginning of the film Jesse is asked if his book is autobiographical, which we know it clearly is. He answers that in a sense all of our output is autobiographical. We see the world through our own narrow keyhole. In literature this is true, but in film many life perspectives are combined and the result is sometimes optimistic and fake, and sometimes transcendent and real, if not kind of depressing. Before Sunset belongs to the latter category. It does not seek to tell you something you don't know, or show you something you've never seen before. In fact all the film really does is reinforce what you know is true, but what you and plenty of major motion pictures deny on a regular basis: life is hell, but sometimes its really worth it.

note: I found out after having written this review that Before Sunset was filmed in two weeks on a two million dollar budget, an accomplishment that is basically unheard of in major motion pictures.

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