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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Roads Not Taken

Last week I watched Before Sunset, which is a sequel to one of my favorite films, Before Sunrise.

For those unfamiliar with these films, first of all, shame on you. Before Sunrise is one of the most effective filmed romances I've ever seen, and it has an incredibly simple conceit that is yet incredibly hard to pull off convincingly. A young American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), is on a train to Vienna at the tail end of one of those "backpacking across Europe" things that all young people are supposed to do (but few actually do), when he happens to meet a beatiful young woman his age named Celine (Julie Delpy). As the train pulls into the Vienna station, Jesse talks Celine into getting off the train with him and just spending a day in Vienna until he catches his plane for home. The film does nothing but follow these two people around Vienna as they talk, and talk, and talk...and fall in love with each other. As the film ends, the two lovers promise to come back to Vienna in six months' time...but we don't know if they do. The implication, really, is that they pretty much don't, but we don't know.

Until, that is, director Richard Linklater made Before Sunset a year ago, finally letting us know whether Jesse and Celine met in Vienna again. Nine years later, Jesse has written a novelized account of that night in Vienna, and he's in Paris doing a book signing when he looks up and sees Celine standing there. And just like that, they are off again, wandering the streets of Paris and talking to pass the time between now and Jesse's plane. Again.

Now, here's something weird, at least for me. Even though I dearly loved Before Sunrise, which I saw in its original theatrical run, I have not seen it all the way through since then -- all I've managed to do is catch bits and pieces of it when it's turned up on afternoon or late-night movies on TV. And in turn, that means that just as Jesse and Celine are making up for nine years of their lives in Before Sunset, I'm doing the same thing with both of them in seeing the new film now.

What to say about the film in general? Well, two things strike me. First, the dialogue, obviously. It's not brilliant dialogue that will last in the annals of filmdom, but it is utterly convincing dialogue in that these two characters say things that I'd absolutely expect two intelligent people with a close connection to one another to say to each other at that point in their lives. It was genuine dialogue, and that's no small thing.

The other thing is in the performances of the leads. Now, Ethan Hawke has never been my favorite actor, but Jesse seems to be his perfect role; and of course, Delpy is wondrous, even as she's aged nine years since last time. (In fact, I'm generally finding older women more and more beautiful as time goes by, and I'm finding youthful beauty less interesting.) What's interesting about their performances here is the way they don't sound like they are exchanging scripted dialogue, but like they are having an actual conversation: they break into each other's uncompleted sentences, they interrupt each other, at times they are both talking at the same time. It's fascinating to listen to, and I wonder how much of the film was scripted and how much was adlibbed.

Before Sunset falters a bit in its final scene, when Jesse accompanies Celine to her apartment. Somehow this part of the film felt off to me, as if I was suddenly glimpsing more into her character than was wise for the film to reveal. I don't know; the feeling is hard to put into words, but it was real. Something about that part of the film feels just slightly wrong to me.

The second film no more ends with a "full-stop" than the first one did, although the ending of Before Sunset seems to leave things more open for an assumption of a happy ending than Before Sunrise did. If anything, this film seems to almost imply that perhaps in 2013 we'll have Before Midnight. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing these characters again.

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