In a summer that has seen most theaters besieged by the likes of Iron Man, Star Trek and The Lone Ranger, it seems fitting that most critics have sought refuge in small, intimate movies like Frances Ha and Before Midnight. I have been interested in Frances Ha for awhile now because it is directed by Noah Baumbach, whose first movie Kicking and Screaming (no not the one with Will Ferrel), is one my favorite films. I didn't know a whole lot about Before Midnight, so when I learned it starred Ethan Hawke, was directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused), and was the third in a line of spectacular movies, I decided to make a night out of watching the first two.
What I found in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset was more affecting than all the bombast and spectacle in most movies that are coming out this time of year. The films feature a young American, Jesse Wallace (Ethan Hawke) and a young French woman, Celine (Julie Delpy), who meet on a train and fall for each other other the course of a night in Vienna. It's a simple boy-meets-girl tale that is elevated by sharp dialogue, beautiful scenery and the most natural chemistry I've seen between a couple on screen since Annie Hall. From the moment Jesse and Celine meet on the train, and Jesse convinces her to come with him to Vienna instead of going to Paris, it's obvious that your not watching your average romance flick. These movies are something more. They are a testament to the power of love, and how being in the presence of of it can spellbind even the most cynical and/or jaded person
Both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are based on the premise that our two protagonist have a limited time together. The time constraint creates an urgency in the dialogue between the characters, Linklater uses minimalism to further accentuate this. There are few other speaking roles in these films, an there is not a line wasted here. Every word Hawke and Delpy say to each other has purpose and every glance or gesture carries with it some impact. We all have an idea of what love at first sight would be like; meeting someone and sharing a night where every story you tell rings true and every joke lands on receptive ears. A night where you dance, laugh, and make love to another who is so completely accepting of who you are that you are able to get outside of your own head and live in a moment. One perfect night. That's what we are all chasing. That's what Before Sunrise captures beautifully.
Before Sunrise is a film about finding love, and trying to figure out what that means. Before Sunset is a movie about the staying power of love. Can love withstand the overwhelming force of time? In Before Sunset we meet our characters a decade after the first film. Jesse has gone on to write a best selling novel about the two's fateful night, and has also married another woman and had a child. Jesse finds himself in Paris on a book tour where he runs into Celine, who now has her master's degree and works for a company focused on protecting the environment. At the end of the last film the couple promised to meet at the same train station they depart from, exactly six months from the time they depart. We learn that Jesse did indeed return to that train station in Vienna all those years ago, but Celine did not. Her grandmother had just died and she was unable to make the trip. This becomes the nucleus of Before Sunset's story.
There's this bang bang moment both characters shared all those years ago in Vienna, and no matter how far they've moved on from that time and place, all those experiences and relationships since have been tempered by the experience. There's this brutal moment in the film where Celine breaks down in front of Jesse while trying to explain how she can't move on from that moment, like all lasting memories it has it's own powerful gravity. How often do we struggle to move on from the past only to dwell on what once was day-after-day. The memories that stick are also the ones that bring with it a weight that we have to carry around for the rest of our lives. No matter how pleasant they are, they are our burden.
The film ends with Jesse going up to see Celine's apartment before he has to get on a plane and head back to his wife and child. By now we've learned that Jesse is not happy in his marriage and it's clear that the Celine and Jesse still have feelings for each other. Over the course of the movie these feelings continue to mature. Both characters know how impossible a relationship between the two would be. The repercussions are expressed, but no overtly, Linklater knows his audiences are mature enough to realize what's at stake here. This is what makes the scene of the two walking up the stairs to Celine's apartment brilliant. In this small moment you see all the themes of excitement, hope, fear and longing that the movie is all about. The end of the movie is brilliant in its own right, but unfortunately it loses a bit of its impact because of the very fact Before Midnight exists, but the execution is spot on, and even thinking about it now puts a smile on my face.
These films work so wonderfully because Linklater knows to get out of the way of Hawke and Delpy. After watching the films I had to get on Wikipedia and check to see if the two were married, or at the very least had a relationship at some point. There's just something so tangible about the love portrayed between Celine and Jesse. You can see it in the film just easily as you see the buildings and people. It's such a rare thing to see in the real world, let alone on screen, where most relationships feel like they've been run through a Hollywood cliche filter half a dozen times. By the end of both movies I found myself rooting for them to get together. This seems like a banal observation, but there are only a handful of movies in which I've ever been invested enough in the dynamics of a relationship to have a rooting interest. Coming from a grouch like myself, this is high praise.
There's nothing wrong with cinema being a venue for distraction, and there are plenty of films out that serve this purpose. But some films, and this is true for all great art, are capable of so much more. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset both capture something real and powerful and the human experience, and it was as exciting to watch as any movie I've seen in years. I'm thrilled to know that Before Midnight was made, and continues on in the tradition of its predecessors. When it comes out in video I hope it hits me as hard as the other films have, because in this summer of action heroes, phaser weapons and giant robots, I want to be reminded what is to be human.