Sunday, June 9, 2013

From My Collection: Before Sunset Movie Review

The way Before Sunset improves upon its predecessor is simply marvelous. Before Sunrise is well-regarded for its excellent writing, interesting and intelligent conversations, and romanticism. The sequel has all of that plus more relaxed and self-assured performances from Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, and a more mature level of discussion and philosophy that is, at least for the moment, closer to my own ways of thinking now that I am roughly the same age as Jesse and Celine.

When it came out I was 26 and just as taken with Before Sunset as I am now. Nine years after they met on a train and spent a night wandering around Vienna, Jesse and Celine have had a lot of time to think about what might have been. They never fulfilled their commitment to meet six months later and so Jesse has spent the interim dreaming about Celine even as he married someone else and had a son. Celine has had mostly unsatisfying relationships that, as she describes them, don’t live up to the ideal she had in her head for what a romance with Jesse would have been.

They meet in Paris somewhat coincidentally: Jesse has just had his novel published – a novel based on his encounter with Celine. On his promotional tour she finds him and they walk the streets together for his final hour or so before he has to catch a plane. So the film this time is presented in real time. There are no breaks in the action, no segment of conversation we are not privy to. They dance around their attraction to one another while Jesse continually delays his departure, most likely afraid of making the same mistake twice.

The magic of these movies is not in what happens because if you asked me to describe the action it would consist of the following: Jess and Celine meet; they have coffee; they wander; they take a tour boat on the Seine; they ride in a car; they go to her apartment; she plays a song on her guitar. But to spend time with them is to gain insight into two thoughtful characters and to find in yourself your reactions to their opinions and choices. So while learning about Jesse and Celine, we’re really learning about ourselves. Their views are now more mature than when they were 23. The romantic idealism has given way to realism and a feeling that life is passing by as they fail to live up to what they saw for themselves as young people. They’re like the fictional versions of the people in the Up documentaries.

The Jesse and Celine characters are no longer the intellectual property of writer-director Richard Linklater. In the sequel, Hawke and Delpy share writing credit for developing their characters and the story organically, based on their sense of how these two people would behave under the circumstances. It’s a wonderful screenplay, also credited to Kim Krizan, who collaborated on the first film too.

One caveat I will add after watching it this time: Jesse’s choice at the end still makes some sense to me at a character level, but I no longer feel like he should get a free pass on it. New information today doesn’t invalidate the choices we made yesterday. But because he’s so likable and his back story comes across as unreasonably difficult for him, we are too willing to let him off the hook. That’s an artistic choice they made in the process of crafting story and it probably says a lot about us as people that they know it would still play well with audiences. It’s amazing what we have the capacity to forgive if there are mitigating circumstances.

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