BEFORE MIDNIGHT is coming out at the end of May, 2013, and in advance of that release I’m re-watching the first two films in Linklater’s trilogy. I’d seen BEFORE SUNRISE at least half a dozen times since its 1995 release, but BEFORE SUNSET only once – during its theatrical run in 2004. Here are the results of this rediscovery of the series…
BEFORE SUNRISE (1995, Richard Linklater): 10/10
It’s May, 2001. I’m 26 years old and living a shambling lifestyle in Los Angeles: a struggling screenwriter, professional script reader, film & music journalist, and overall a typical 21st century twenty-something. I’d had my heart broken by my first and most powerful love a year prior, and was still single and smarting. My dear friend A.J. and I decide to take a trip to Europe. Two dudes, two backpacks, a few dollars, and a vague itinerary. We hit Prague first, then an unplanned detour to Český Krumlov, then Vienna, then finally Budapest. It’s our last night in Europe before we must catch a 7am flight to Paris, connecting to L.A.
Late afternoon, we pop into a Budapest hostel for a beer. The only other person there is a gorgeous young woman named Niina drinking alone. We ask her what we should do for the evening. She suggests a dance club, and invites us along. I come to find out she’s from Finland (but speaks perfect English, of course), and is traveling alone on a trip she was supposed to take with her boyfriend — but they broke up just before the trip, and she decided to make the journey on her own anyway. A.J. and I join her at the club and while A.J. is dancing and meeting many Hungarian students celebrating the last day of class that night, I spend the entire time at a booth with Niina talking and talking and talking. When we leave, A.J. returns to our rented apartment and I walk the streets of Budapest with Niina. We share our hopes and dreams, tell jokes, explore the city, and night turns into early morning. The sun rises early in Hungary in May — it’s about 4:30am when dawn light cracks through the sky. We end up at the edge of a bridge over the Danube, linking Buda and Pest, the old town and the new town. Large stone lions greet travelers at the bridge. I move in for the most romantic kiss of my life to date.
Eventually I need to get back and pack for the airport. Niina and I come up for air long enough to take a taxi back to her hostel, and as I drop her off, I realize this night has been a real-life recreation of BEFORE SUNRISE in many ways. My memory of that film is quite strong, as I had seen it three or four times in the six years since its 1995 release. I remember Jesse telling Celine they shouldn’t write each other – that they should say goodbye for good, right there. I can’t bring myself to repeat that dialogue, and end up giving in and exchanging emails with Niina. Alas, just as Jesse and Celine say in the film — it’s depressing. You end up exchanging one or two emails and calls, then it disappears.
I tell this story not to say that I’m unique for living this film, but to point out just how universal the story is. Whether the details are as specifically coincidental between the Jesse/Celine story and mine or not, most of us have those moments in life where we experience the beginning of love, the possibilities it brings, the fears it uproots, and the overwhelming power it has over our memories. And in cases like these, perhaps it’s the finite time limit that makes it so heartbreaking. BEFORE SUNRISE is cinema’s greatest existential love story — because it can only exist in the present. These two people have just one night together, and that constraint forces them to savor every moment they have.
And oh, what moments. SUNRISE works on so many levels, not just the grand-scheme philosophical premise of it. It’s the little details. Celine first meets Jesse because she’s escaping the noxious sounds of an elderly married couple arguing. He’s reading Klaus Kinski’s autobiography “All I Need Is Love.” They’re in a record store listening booth, forced against each other’s shoulders by the tiny confines of the space and Linklater’s intimately voyeuristic camera. The closer they get, the more charged the romantic tension. Later in the film, after they’ve had their first kiss, their first fight, and many laughs, they’re in a quiet alley talking about broad themes (oh how the young love to explore life’s big questions) and Celine talks about how love, God, and magic is what exists in the space between people — it’s in how we try to connect to another person and share ourselves with them. It’s a difficult, maybe impossible task, but she says the meaning is in the attempt. As that line sits and digests, Jesse looks at her with such glowing love. He’s a cynic (many of their arguments and anecdotes reveal his innate cynicism about people, while hers reveals an idealistic optimism) but admires her positivity so much. After we register the new depths of his feelings for her, Linklater jumps out to a wide shot and we see this empty, yellow-lit alley, a passage that can go forward or backward, but these two people are stationary for the moment, right in the middle. And they’re the only two people there.
BEFORE SUNRISE is relentlessly cinematic despite being a two-handed dialogue-driven story taking place in less than 24 hours. Here is a film where two people literally in constant motion (on a train) meet, and decide to stop moving for the night (get off the train). They freeze time in Austria (neutral ground, a strange land for them both) before he has to return to the U.S. and she to France. Vienna becomes a third character in the film (and sorry, I hate that cliche when critics talk about locations being characters, but what else can I do here) but not in an intrusive or forced way. Its street bums (like the poet whose words sum up this bizarre relationship [“Don’t you know me by now?”]), its palm readers, actors, bartenders… they are specific and charming. At one point Jesse tells Celine, in one of his trademark cynical world views, that he thinks people drink and do drugs and get depressed because they’re sick of themselves — “I’ve never traveled anywhere I haven’t been.” But here, Linklater gives us a chance to do something without ourselves: we live this romance that doesn’t involve us, it’s about these two people. And we believe every second of it.
Let’s not ignore just how terrific Hawke and Delpy are. Hawke nails the grunge-era twenty-something slacker, with his beat up black leather jacket, grey t-shirt, blue jeans, and black Chucks. His goatee is grad-school comedy, his hair a month past needing a cut. He does sarcastic fist pumps when he gets his way, and drops all charade when he feels that passion for Celine. Delpy is every bit Hawke’s match — silky golden hair that ends up in braids, a hippie long skirt with a flannel tied around her waist, artsy and comfortable, like she is in her skin. She looks at Jesse in so many different ways, all perfect — when he’s first telling the story about the garden hose and the ghost, you can see her starting to fall for him. When she finds him silly and immature in his philosophies, but charming nonetheless, she furrows her brow at this endearing boy. But when she hugs him, you can sense she can’t let him go, like the fragile girl she is at heart — open to everything and vulnerable because of it.
My all-time favorite films tend to be aggressive, visceral experiences marked by an abundance of style and unforgettable imagery (e.g. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE CONFORMIST, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, DO THE RIGHT THING, FUNNY GAMES, etc.). But after all these viewings, BEFORE SUNRISE has joined that group with a different kind of power — it gets into my bloodstream straight to my heart. Whether it’s the 18 years I’ve had to digest it, the distance from which to contemplate it, or the experiences I’ve had to identify with it, its brilliance has become undeniable. Few films in history, at least of the thousands that I have seen, have been able to explore and communicate so rapturously not just what it feels like to fall in love, but to investigate what it means to be alive — to be young, to wonder, and to leap into the unknown.
BEFORE SUNSET (2004, Richard Linklater): 8/10
It’s not as jarring as you’d think to watch this film straight back-to-back with SUNRISE. In a flash we’ve jumped forward 9 years, and Jesse is a published author working a tour at a bookstore in France when he sees Celine for the first time since that morning in Vienna. There’s something pure to the fact that Linklater has not shown us a single moment of their time together without us watching. We learn that Jesse returned six months later to Vienna, but her grandmother’s death prevented Celine from meeting him there. And without any info on each other, they were doomed to be lost.
Jesse does explain at the beginning, when speaking to bookstore customers about his autobiographical novel documenting that night with Celine, that if you found out whether or not they actually met up six months later, it would take the piss out of the whole thing. Then five minutes later, Linklater tells us whether they actually met up or not. I’m not sure winking at the unnecessary existence of this film makes it better, but regardless — it’s great to see these two characters again. It’s only later in the film when they confess that they were just being young and stupid when they decided not to exchange information — sort of accusing those of us who didn’t want a sequel of the same. Why not keep in touch? Why not see what happens?
The two one-night lovers fall a bit too quickly back into their pattern of philosophizing about life, within virtual seconds of meeting again. Celine has become a nonstop chatterbox, and a little embittered by life. Her change is an honest one — this is what happens to idealists when they turn 30. Jesse, for his part, remains a cynic but one who has yet to let go of the romantic side of him. I believe him that he wrote the book in order to find her. My problem with their interactions here is not the truth of the situation (it’s every bit as honest and realistic, if not more so, than the first chapter), but the content of the conversation. While these discussions do capture an identifiable characteristic of being in your early 30s, reflecting on your irony-free youth and showing signs of discontent adulthood, they’re not all that gripping. What they say isn’t as funny or charming, and there aren’t as many lines that hit home. I don’t know who to blame for this. I can start with myself, of course, but perhaps it’s the screenplay. SUNRISE was co-written by Linklater (who evidently had an experience much like I did and based Jesse on himself) and Kim Krizan, who reportedly had a brief affair with a Canadian man and lent her experiences to the script as well. But SUNSET is credited to Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. I’m guessing a lot of the conversation this time around was improvised or pre-written by the actors themselves, and for some reason it feels a little dulled. And they never take a breath. Delpy is talking nonstop, mostly with Jesse watching, smiling, and failing to interrupt. Those beautiful moments in SUNRISE when their silence spoke volumes — those are gone. The rhythms of that night in Vienna have been replaced by an 80-minute one-note barrage of dialogue.
SUNSET is 20 minutes shorter than SUNRISE, but it feels like half the size of it. There are just a handful of locations in this Paris-set sequel: the bookstore for a few minutes, a cafe, a garden path, a tourist boat, a car, and Celine’s apartment. That’s it. Paris isn’t looming over this story like Vienna loomed over SUNRISE. Perhaps that’s by design — when you’re young, the world is huge and it matters a great deal; when you get older, it’s more about whom you’re with than where you are. Or it could be budgetary. Whatever the reason, the film just feels tight and small. Even Linklater’s compositions are rigid and contained; lots of medium two-shots and closeups; very few wide scenics. And the artistry of SUNRISE — the powerful cuts, fluid camera moves, and scene setting vistas — has vanished. (Nothing in SUNSET matches the power of that push in towards Celine when Jesse returns to the lounge car to ask her to get off the train; or the cut out to the empty alley mentioned above; or the listening booth shot).
All that said, I’m dwelling on the negatives strictly to explain why I think SUNRISE is a much better film. That doesn’t mean I dislike SUNSET at all. I think it’s smart, poignant, and the argument in the car — when Celine erupts in agony over her wasted romanticism, and Jesse in return confesses his aching dreams about being with her, it’s impossible not to cry — is fantastic. The ending is a gorgeous one, not just the final shot of Celine seductively dancing, but the entire apartment scene including her swoon-worthy waltz that she wrote about Jesse. I’ve grown up with these characters just a few years behind them, and I do feel like Linklater gets it. I’m excited to see BEFORE MIDNIGHT and the probable end to this series, but I go into it unsure the lightning he captured in the 1995 bottle will ever be matched. SUNRISE is 100 minutes of perfection, so raw and bewitching that even great sequels appear mortal by comparison.