A Film by Richard Linklater
written by Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
The new film from director Richard Linklater is a sort of a sequel to his earlier film Before Sunrise, - but a sequel that stands alone, and offers an enjoyable experience even to those who have never seen the earlier work. It is a "romantic" film in the best sense of that word, fraught with uncertainty, sexual tension, emotional complexity and humor.
Before Sunrise was the story of two students in their early twenties, traveling across Europe on a train. They chance to share a compartment and their casual conversation leads to more intense interest and attraction between them. The girl is French, and she is going to Paris. The boy is American and is on his way to Vienna. Struck by the rapport they have formed in a few brief hours, he persuades her to get off in Vienna, and they spend the rest of the night wandering around the city and talking as a surprisingly intimate relationship grows up between them. At sunrise they part, promising to meet back in Vienna in six months.
In Before Sunset, we meet the two main characters again, nine years later. They are played by the same actors. Julie Delpy is Celine. Ethan Hawke is Jesse. They are both now in their early thirties and haven't seen each other since that sunrise in Vienna.
Jesse has become a successful writer, with a best-selling first novel based on his encounter with Celine, that has prompted the book tour that brings him to Paris. Celine lives in Paris and works for an environmental organization that promotes and facilitates ecologically-sound development projects. Celine has read Jesse's book, and comes to his reading at a Paris bookstore.
The story of how the two re-connect, how they bridge - and fail to bridge - the nine year gap between their first meeting and this one, is the center of the film. Like the earlier film, there is very little "plot" involved. Most of the "action" revolves around the two main characters walking (or riding, or sitting) around and talking. The dramatic tension is created by the strong chemistry between the two lead actors, and the uncertainty as to where all this will lead.
It is this uncertainty, the tentativeness of their cautious approach to one another, and to the themes that memory of their first encounter arouses for them that builds suspense and interest in the film. The two actors have to create personae that are authentic and engaging enough that the audience actually cares about them, about how they develop their relationship.
It is to the credit of Hawke and Delpy that they play their parts in what could easily have become an overblown, soap-operatic melodrama with simplicity, honesty and humility - without a hint of the ego or scenery-chewing that would have dragged this story down into low camp. It is essentially a "two-person show," and the actors have to trust enough in the appeal of the characters they are creating - and in each other - to believe that their personalities and situation will sustain audience involvement for an hour and twenty minutes. It is up to the director to guide them and encourage them, to help them develop their characters and give them the confidence to go out without any theatrical "tricks" to hide behind.
Linklater, whose early films included Slacker and Dazed and Confused as well as Before Sunrise, has always showed a fascination with personality - what makes people tick - and a willingness to trust an audience's intelligence and openness in understanding the complexity and appeal of seemingly ordinary characters. In this film, he returns to simple themes: what makes relationships happen; how the choices we make resonate in our lives; how we create and recreate ourselves in each moment; whether there are forces acting in our lives that are beyond (yet perhaps in some way part of) our imaginations?
He gives this film a tremendous spontaneity by letting the actors improvise and create most of the dialogue. In fact, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke are credited together with the screenplay. But this is not the forced, self-conscious improvisation we have seen in some films. This is heartfelt dialogue that comes out of the characters themselves.
There is a remarkable, throw-away moment early in the film, when Jesse and Celine first greet each other outside the bookstore that sets the tone. They converse with the desultory, self-conscious air of people with an emotional history who haven't seen each other in years. Suddenly, Celine suggests they go for coffee, with an impulsive naturalness that is seldom captured on film. It is a moment that brings a sudden focus to the film, gives the sense that what we are witnessing is absolutely real. There are a number of such moments - where the actors do things that are clearly totally "unrehearsed" but don't feel at all forced or mannered.
And the film sustains that feeling for the most part. Jesse and Celine almost never seem like actors reciting memorized lines - the few times that such artificiality even slightly intrudes are jarring. For the vast majority of the film, there is a feeling of real presence, of an overheard conversation, where the participants are listening closely to one another and neither knows exactly what they are going to say or do next.
This sense of immediacy and unpredictability is key to the film's success. The ability of the director to encourage and capture it on film, and the daring willingness of the actors to "work without a net" of plot points and character arcs is what lifts this film beyond the "romance" or "romantic comedy" genres and makes it something unique.
As I said above, the work of Delpy and Hawke is extraordinary. Both these actors, in their early thirties, are seasoned veterans. Delpy has made more than forty-three films in the twenty years since she started in film at the age of fifteen. American audiences saw her in the critically-acclaimed Three Colors trilogy of Krzysztof Kieslowski (she appeared in all three films), as well as Before Sunrise and Linklater's animated film, Waking Life.
Hawke started acting on film in Explorers at the age of fourteen and has made 34 films, including Dead Poets Society, Waterland, Snow Falling on Cedars and Waking Life. He is also a novelist and director of the independent films Straight to One and Chelsea Walls.
The experience of having literally grown up in front of the camera stands them both in good stead here. They are able, as few actors seem to be, to put their thoughts and feelings - always in character - on the line. And Linklater is to be credited for enabling a creative climate in which they obviously feel safe and free to do so, and for capturing those moments and stitching them together in a way that makes the whole film flow smoothly.
The editing is another part of that story. One rarely notices editing - especially if it is done well. That is also true here; the editing is unobtrusive. Looking back on it, however, and considering how the film - without much physical or chronological movement - establishes a rhythm that moves the "story" gracefully and enticingly forward, it is obvious how much this "invisible" element contributes.
Likewise, the composition of the narrative, under the hand of Linklater, moves between more intense and contemplative moments and more playful and whimsical beats; from moments of poignancy to moments of nostalgia, to moments of self-doubt, to moments of impulsive surrender. It is this dance of emotion, subtle and very personal, that is the true subject of the film.
The cinematography is remarkably good. There is a slightly rough, "indie" feel to it, with a very mobile camera that contributes to the sensation of slightly-giddy candidness. There is a lot of "hand-held" work, used carefully and smoothly for the intimacy with the action it allows and the freedom to follow the actors no matter what they do - but the jerky, distractingly-nauseating feel of some such work is artfully avoided.
The principle "set" is Paris itself - what more needs to be said? Without romanticizing or fantasizing about it, Linklater manages to invest the city with the very ordinary/extraordinary kind of magic he so successfully evokes throughout the whole film- that is in fact an integral part of his subject.
The music is sweetly (but never cloyingly) appropriate. There are several songs written and performed by Delpy - who has a pleasant, unspoiled amateur style that is perfectly appropriate to her character. The adolescently-pretentious, slightly-sentimental lyrics are exactly what someone whose emotions outstripped their poetic abilities might have written - again, accurately and touchingly tuned to the character and story.
It would be very easy to adopt a cynical tone a make mincemeat of the delicate, emotional ambiguity at the core of this film. I'm sure many "sophisticated" critics will have fun doing so. But for those who recognize the charm of the tender, hopeful-yet-fearful mixture of longing and uncertainty that lies at the heart of every intimate relationship, this accomplished, deeply felt evocation of it will be a great, simple pleasure.
That's my take on it. What's yours?