I have never been to Paris. The city has existed in my mind like the ultimate urban siren, calling me to dash myself across the rocks of romance. I have recognized the danger and forced myself to face the idea of saving my journey for that moment in my life when I can share it with someone I love, someone with whom the trip will act as a communion. I worry that Paris will never live up to my expectations, but how could it? Everything I dream about the City of Lights I have learned at the movies. The child’s-eye view of desperation in The 400 Blows, the macho swagger of Breathless, the relationship challenges of My Sex Life…, the isolation of language and identity in What Time Is It There?, the hipster mortality of Cléo from 5 to 7, Paris is like a beautiful ancient vessel holding a million stories, and looking like the star of the show in its own right.
As many times as I have visited its streets and stories from a seat in a movie theater, never have I been as drawn to its charms and possibilities as powerfully as I was during Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset.
A sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise, Sunset reunites the American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) with the French Celine (Julie Delpy) as Jesse makes his way to Paris to support the novel he has written about his one-night stand with Celine. After seeing her, Jesse is given 90 minutes before his plane departs, and he and Celine go on what amounts to the mother of all romantic walking tours of Paris. Will the lovers reunite? How have they changed? Did they meet in December of 1994 as they promised one another at the end of Sunrise? Rest assured, all questions are answered, but the film’s charms lie not in the resolution of the dangling questions from Sunrise, but in the beautifully modulated changes in the characters lives that lend the film a true authenticity.
Linklater, coming off of last year’s delirious School of Rock, has pulled off a major coup, creating a film that is more disciplined than anything else he has ever done, and using his greatest strength, dialogue, to enhance his growing mastery of the psychology of the camera. Sunset is as patient and as French a film as you are likely to see this year (and in my book, that is high praise.) The film feels like a blend of Eric Rohmer’s conversation driven relationship comedies directed by Russian Ark auteur Aleksandr Sokurov. The long, slow tracking shots as the couple talk and re-discover one another feel like a gift for both the characters and the audience; a languorous opportunity to soak in Paris and re-discover a lost love. Delpy and Hawke give outstanding, extremely natural performances, and the delivery of their dialogue and their chemistry are perfect. What is most impressive about Hawke and Delpy, and about Linklater’s direction, is not only the technical feat of delivering the goods during so many continuous tracking shots, but the perfect rhythms and escalation of their growing reconciliation. Every moment feels real and built upon the previous moment until, by the end of the film, the final ten minutes are as fraught with as much tension and possibility for the audience as they are for the lovers.
In this regard, Sunset is a far superior film to Sunrise. The charms and romance of Sunrise are really predicated on the premise of taking a chance with a stranger in a strange city and having a single night to connect. Despite the simplicity of the premise, Sunrise delivers on the romance of its situation, sometimes despite the characters. When you re-visit Sunrise, Jesse seems so self-assured and verbose, spilling over with enthusiasm and charming but self-absorbed intelligence, you are never sure if he is truly interested in Celine or in love with the moment itself. Celine’s openness almost reads like an American man’s fantasy of the perfect European woman; smart, beautiful, mysterious, and (of course) sexually available. The characters in Sunrise are young and impetuous, and watching them, one roots for them to succeed despite all we know about romance from our own experience (ok, from MY own experience.) In Sunset, we meet the characters in adulthood, where nothing is as simple as it once was. Feelings have become the reflections of past feelings, life’s situations all relative to a life of experience.
It is in this context that Delpy really shines and steals the show. Her Celine has truly changed and become a mature, concerned woman with opinions and beliefs, retaining her hope in romantic love but recognizing the difference between ideals and the reality of human relationships. Delpy portrays Celine’s escalating anxiety and desire for openness by walking the tightrope between revelation of her true feelings and the cat and mouse game of flirtation. At the same time, Celine has become a confident woman who refuses to back down from her opinions, but beneath the strength of her political convictions, there is a profound vulnerability in her desire to “love and be loved.” There is a moment between the two characters when Jesse is confessing his own anxieties about his relationship. Celine reaches for his hair to comfort him but quickly pulls her hand away before Jeese sees the gesture. As deeply as she wishes to comfort him, Celine remains unsure if she would be exposing too much of herself in doing so. This is the stuff of real life and real feeling, and the dramatic tension of Sunset is made up of small moments like these, hiding behind the declarations and pronouncements of the character’s dialogue.
The ultimate romance of the film, much like Sunrise, is built into its premise as much as it is reflected in the on-screen chemistry between the lovers. The idea of having another chance with the one that got away is, in its own right, as seemingly false a notion as Sunrise‘s one-night stand in Vienna. Does this happen in real life? Sunset transcends the cinematic romanticism of the situation by infusing its characters with just enough regret, instability, and longing to give the film the feeling of truth. And besides, who cares if romance looks this way for anyone else? For Jesse and Celine, a long walk in Paris as the sun goes down can assuage any wounds and reconcile even the most hardened cynic to the hope that love can win the day. The city works its magic once again.