DVD RE-RUN REVIEW: Living in the Moment, Nine Years Later; Linklater’s Lovers Reunite in “Before Sunset”
by Erica Abeel
[EDITORS NOTE: “Before Sunset” will be released on DVD this week, November 9, 2004. Erica Abeel reviewed the film for indieWIRE back in February.]
Romance junkies of the world arise. If you were hooked on Richard Linklater‘s 1994 “Before Sunrise,” the ballad of a 24-hour love affair between American Jesse and Frenchwoman Celine, your moment has come. You now get to see what happened after the couple’s wrenching farewell in a train station, when they vowed to meet again in Vienna in six months. And I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, to judge by the warm reception “Before Sunset” received at its world premiere at the 2004 Berlinale (Warner Independent Pictures opens it on Friday).
This festival fave struck a chord for several reasons. It’s an anomaly: since when do indie films spawn sequels — and especially from the director of indie icon “Dazed and Confused?” Sequels are for Bruce Willis and der Arnold; they’re economically driven, as the ever mellow Linklater said at the press conference; while “this film we’re doin’ for ourselves primarily.” “Sunset” also scratches the itch to know what becomes of people — and what became of these particular beautiful young people as yet unscarred by disappointment and missteps. It caters to our naïve need to spin forward the plot: DID Ethan Hawke‘s Jesse and Julie Delpy‘s Celine meet again in Vienna as promised? And it taps into such consuming questions as, Can you build a life out of a one-night stand? Does anyone out there still believe in romantic love?
At the opening of “Sunset,” nine years have elapsed since the train station good-byes — merging the film’s plot with the real lives of the director and actors. Linklater followers will remember, however, a tantalizing glimpse of Jesse and Celine in “Waking Life,” his trippy computer-animated feature, as they lie in bed avidly discussing some question from the earlier “Sunrise.” Part of the charm of the whole endeavor is that these characters have remained alive and ongoing in the heads of Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, who all collaborated on the script.
Now a successful writer, Jesse is giving a reading in a Paris bookstore from a novel that has more than a little to do with his night with Celine (and again notches into reality since Hawke is himself an author.) As the audience probes Jesse about autobiographical fiction and his thoughts on romantic love, enter Celine, more radiant after nine years of living. Turns out she frequents the bookstore and knew about his reading. Jesse has roughly 80 minutes before his plane back to New York, and the rest of the 80-minute film takes place in real time, tracking their course through Paris, from café, to park, to bateau mouche, to Celine’s apartment.
As they stroll, the former lovers catch up on each other’s lives, words pitched to a higher frequency by their past intimacy. Jesse is now married and has a son; Celine is in a committed relationship with a photojournalist. The politically aware Frenchwoman works for an environmental organization dedicated to relieving some portion of the world’s misery. Jesse the apolitical American teases her about Commie leanings (her cat is named Che), while she rags him about the inhumanity of imperialist countries. But the big revelation is that Jesse did indeed show up six months later in Vienna. Celine didn’t, due to a freak of timing: the death of her cherished grandmother. And from a youthful disdain for the banal, they’d failed to exchange phone numbers. An intriguing window opens: suppose Celine had shown up? Might their lives have taken a different course?
The stakes are raised when Celine, who’s possibly manic-depressive, reveals that her photog boyfriend is often away and maybe more attentive to humanity’s travails than to one human being; and then, in a song (written by Delpy) confesses feelings for Jesse she’s held back. While Jesse, who at moments acts like an adolescent horndog, confesses his marriage is sex-deprived and joyless. Do these two have a future? But a walk into the sunset would be so Hollywood. Jesse lives for his son, he’s got a life, and isn’t Celine a little nuts? And Celine values her independence, and is he quite her intellectual equal, even if he wrote that bestseller? While making us root for Jesse and Celine, this film mounts a potent defense against romantic fantasy: the lure of the familiar and reluctance to change one’s life.
You could quibble that Linklater serves up the tourist’s Paris, complete with Notre Dame and a ride on a bateau mouche. Most Parisians don’t cook up communal picnics in their courtyards, as in Celine’s building. And Paul Auster tends to be the only American novelist who gets a reading in Paris (unless you’re a movie star like Ethan Hawke.) Also, Celine and Jesse’s chatter flirts alarmingly at moments with psychobabble or a stoned sophomoric talking jag, not all that different from those weird exchanges in “Waking Life.” But sounding like Noel Coward has never been Linklater’s forte. He uses language in this film less as a fine-tuned instrument of communication than as a blunt implement to hack away at protective armor. All the nuances the words can’t convey matter more than those they do.
Linklater has never been that interested in structure either — in fact, his preferred form is often a 24-hour plotless meander. By reducing the time to 80 minutes, he ups the ante by giving you a palpable sense of the clock running, which compounds the film’s suspense. (When Celine and Jesse climb two flights to her apartment, Linklater takes you up every single step.) Above all, though it’s been tightly scripted. “Sunset” is a tour de force of spontaneity and naturalness. Hawke, looking slightly worn about the eyes, talks about being “bummed,” and unhappy “24/7” and sounds uncannily like the Jesse we’ve met before. As for Delpy, she doesn’t speak lines — she pours out language with a quicksilver charm. The film is a must-see if only for her seductive enactment of a Nina Simone performance that holds the viewer — and Jesse — in her thrall. In fact, the whole film plays like performance — improv in a theater. In that sense, it pushes Linklater’s interest in innovative form in yet another new direction. The actors ride the energy and live in the moment — just as the characters aspire to live in the moment — hit the ground running and never let up. It’s filmmaking as one gorgeous uninterrupted gesture.