Monday, May 21, 2012

Favorite Films: "Before Sunset"

It's been a few years since I've seen Before Sunset, so I may get some of the details wrong.  I may remember things that didn't actually happen, or not quite the way I remember them.  I might even remember it being much better than it actually is.

Memory is funny that way.  Humans have a fascinating tendency to filter out the bad and ratchet up the good when they remember things.  That trip you took to Hawaii, the one where you fought and argued and cried and screamed with your traveling companion?  You remember the sunset and the beach and how it was to climb the green mountain.  Odd, isn't it?

Before Sunset is a remarkable film that knows exactly that -- and conveys, in a way that you would think is impossible to capture on film, how achingly we long to relive those experiences.  The green mountain, I mean, not the shouting and pouting.

True confession: I never saw Before Sunrise, the movie that came before Before Sunset, when Jesse and Celine first met each other.  They're the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also helped write this film.  I don't really want to see the earlier film, either, in the same way you don't really want to know what your spouse was like before you knew each other; the photos and the stories are fine, but actually being there would strip away some of the mystery.  Even after decades together, you have to have your secrets.

Everything you need to know about Jesse and Celine, Before Sunset shares: They met one night in Vienna, they spent an unforgettable evening together, and they never saw each other again -- despite a promise to meet.  Life happened.  Marriage, career, messiness.

But here's Jesse, an author come to sign his book at Shakespeare & Co. on the Left Bank.  Celine read about the signing, and she wasn't sure she should come, but she did.  They walk through Paris together, and they talk, and then the time comes that Jesse is supposed to leave for the airport to go home.

That's all that happens in the movie, but it's both extraordinarily cinematic and achingly, impossibly romantic and engrossing.  Only on second or third viewing does it sink in: These shots, these long, unbroken shots of walks through Paris streets, are technical masterpieces.  How did they do that?  On that level alone, Before Sunrise demands to be seen -- it's more complex, in its way, than any visual-effects-laden blockbuster, because while the camera and crew are moving, imperceptibly, Hawke and Delpy not only don't break character, they make character.

Contemporary characters are hard to pull off, because there's frankly not a lot of appeal to sitting in the dark watching people who are more like you than not.  Hawke and Delpy are complex, interesting people; you want to spend time with them.

They speak language that has the rhythm and cadence of our own, but cuts to the quick.  "What's it like to be married?" she asks. "It's like I run a day care center with someone I used to date," he answers with hard-won truth.  Talk like this is possible with someone you love and will never see again.

Jesse and Celine are in love, always have been, maybe, but they're smart enough to know they fell in love with the idea of the other person.  Now, the reality is there in front of them.  It is appealing.  It is frustrating.  It is everything they hoped and nothing they wanted.  They flirt because they have no future.  But then, there's that closing line -- two words that may be among the most perfect in movie history.

There's been talk of a third Before movie.  Before Afternoon?  Doesn't have the same ring.  It's why we don't talk about third chances.  Second chances are rare enough.  Movies as compact and affecting as this are even rarer.

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