Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Before Sunset

Before Sunrise went quickly to video after its release nine years ago, written off by many critics and most moviegoers as a talk-heavy, anachronistic chick flick. So when they released their sequel, Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater and his stars and cowriters, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, must have been braced for another brush-off.

Maybe that’s why Hawke’s character Jesse, defends love stories at the start of this film. Jesse is in Paris at the end of a tour to promote his new novel, the story of a young American man and a young Frenchwoman who meet on a train, fall in love, and spend a day and night in Vienna before parting. He wrote a love story, he tells a group of journalists, because one of the most dramatic things that ever happened to him was “to meet somebody, to make that connection.”

That’s true of a lot of us, of course, which explains why we love movie romances – and why this seamlessly constructed little beauty is so emotionally resonant.

The affair Jesse fictionalized in his book was also the subject of Before Sunrise. That movie ends with Jesse and Delpy’s Celine continuing on their separate journeys after promising to meet again in Vienna in six months. But, as we learn in the sequel, one of them failed to show up. So when Celine shows up in this sequel nine years later, just as Jesse’s interview is ending, the two have a lot to catch up on – and only about an hour before Jesse has to catch a plane home to the States.

Born talkers, the two rely mainly on words to connect, yet their torrent of talk hardly ever feels scripted or stiff. That’s partly because they joke and tease easily, but it’s mostly because of how deftly Linklater and his stars translate talk into action. Speech is a form of recreation for them, and they bat words back and forth like pros.

The combination of sweetness and wit in the intelligent but unguarded Delpy, who has an emotional transparency that seems more American than French, warms up the sometimes off-puttingly cool Hawke, whose Jesse gazes at Celine with pure adoration. Jesse may have a wife and son across the ocean and Celine may have a boyfriend and a comfortable life in Paris, but they’re so clearly right for each other that we root for their reunion.

The will-they-or-won’t-they tension grows as Celine and Jesse shed layers of defenses and acknowledge their attraction to each other. When they first met, as Celine points out, they were too young to realize how rare a thing the connection between them was, but now they’re old enough to appreciate it – and so do we. “It seems like we've seen this a million times: First, youthful romanticism and ideas, and then adult disappointments,” Linklater told Salon. “But what about adult growth and adult passion? You take passionate, intelligent people, and you add age -- that's a nice formula.”

There are other nice formulas at work in this movie, like having the time that passed in the story match the time that has passed between movies, so we can search the actors’ faces as closely as they examine each others’ for signs of age. It’s also a nice idea to give Julie and Jesse only as much time with each other as is left in the movie, so we don’t miss a single gesture or word.

Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniel, who shot Linklater’s first feature film and several others since, change the picturesque backgrounds frequently enough so you don’t feel as if you’re watching a monologue. Yet they don’t play up the glamour of Paris as much as they might, leaving the klieg lights and cranes back in Hollywood. Linklater told Salon that his aim was to make it “seem like a documentary, like we're just following these people.”

Ten or twenty years ago ago, a movie like this would probably have been made by a European director, but Linklater is part of a new generation or two of inventive American directors with distinctive styles, a diverse group that includes Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, and Sofia Coppola. Of his peers, he may be closest in sensibility to Alexander Payne, the director of Citizen Ruth and Election, whose work as grounded in Omaha as Linklater’s usually is in Austin.

Linklater has a more benevolent world view than Payne, and he tends to be fonder of his characters, but the real hallmark of his style is the delight he takes in listening to people talk. Whoever ambles into range of his bemused gaze, you can be sure Linklater will hear him out, whether out of curiosity, for the sheer fun of it, or just to be polite. He’s a quintessentially American type: the artist as regular guy. And with Before Sunset, he has presented us with a deceptively simple gift – a love story that he calls “a romance for realists.”

Written for TimeOFF