Sunday, December 6, 2009

Before Sunrise/Before Sunset

I normally wouldn't break up my flow by inserting a random review when I just promised a series of themed posts, but today I watched Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and its sequel, Before Sunset, and these movies demand to be discussed.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset
Co-writer/Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

I'm going to address a fairly obvious topic for a second, but this subject is rarely contemplated and I think deserves mention: the age at which a viewer sees a film has a profound impact on his/her overall reaction to that film. Someone can see the same movie at age thirteen and again at thirty-five and have vastly different responses to it. Our personal experiences bring with them a deeper understanding of life, and those experiences color our perception in ways we (most of the time) don't fully realize, let alone talk about.

Enter Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, a 1995 film about two twentysomething strangers who meet on a train and spend one night together in Vienna. I imagine this type of movie says something different to each generation: older people may reminisce about their youth, younger people might aspire to be like the two main characters, and viewers equal in age to the characters (read: me) could possibly see the movie's depiction of love in a much more serious light, not merely written off as "young love" by the old or romanticized as a potential future by the young.

I'll be the first to tell you that I'm not normally gung-ho about seeing movies with plot summaries like this one's. I'd heard some good things about this series, and I wanted to check it out for myself. I certainly don't want to over-hype the effect this film had on me, but I can honestly say that I was completely engrossed from start to finish. So engrossed, in fact, that I almost missed the incredible actorial achievements of the movie - Hawke and Delpy give some of the most engaging performances I've seen in a long time, and because the story is so insanely character-centric, I was so entranced that I almost forgot I was watching a movie. And I don't mean in a literal way ("are those people actually IN MY TV?!?"), but I'm sure you know what I mean. Finding these rare experiences is the reason why I love movies, and why I'm on a never-ending quest to find films that evoke these kinds of reactions within me. Back to my point - I almost didn't notice some of the super long takes (many minutes in length) of pure conversation between the two actors, and this is a testament both to the naturalistic writing and the actors' nonchalant delivery and palpable chemistry.

I'm not sure if the structure of the film "works" or not - I was so captivated by every word that I didn't view it with an overly critical eye. Some might complain of aimlessness, the characters wandering around lost in random conversation and accuse the movie of having no direction. That may be true (I haven't truly thought about it, so I'm not sure if it is true or not), but I honestly don't care. The movie does such a good job of fleshing out these characters and giving the audience a close look into their lives, it feels as if I actually know these people. The conversations they have, touching on everything from consumerism to distrust of the media to notions of life and death, are so true to life for people of that age. Anyone my age (especially college students or college grads) will vouch for hearing conversations like that on any campus across the country.

Suffice it to say that I really, really enjoyed Before Sunrise and would recommend it to almost anyone.

[Please note: if you have any interest in what I've said so far, I'd suggest going out and renting Before Sunrise and watching it before you read the rest of this post. The very nature of discussing Before Sunset means that I have to touch on the ending of the first film. That said, I suppose it's necessary to impart my advice on this series here and now: if you watch (and like) the first movie and want to see what happens in the second film, I'd recommend not watching the sequel immediately afterwards. I watched them back to back and now I wish that I'd put some time in between viewings - even something as little as a few days might make a difference. If you don't care about any of this and aren't going to see either movie, read on.]

On to Before Sunset. This 2004 sequel takes place nine years after Jesse (Hawke) and Celine's (Delpy) first encounter, this time in Paris instead of Vienna. Jesse is at the last stop of an international book tour (he's written a book about his meeting with Celine) and happens to be making an appearance at the bookstore Celine frequents. They reunite and go out for coffee, and the movie essentially unfolds in real time as they catch up and discuss, among other things, their thoughts of their night together nine years prior.

The reason I suggested putting some time in between viewings is that I didn't care for Before Sunset nearly as much as Before Sunrise. The passion between the two characters wasn't nearly as epic in the second movie, and while I never felt cheated, the whole thing seemed to be a retread of familiar territory. Keep my previous warning in mind: age has everything to do with perception, and since I'm 24 years old right now, I'm obviously relating more to the younger versions of the characters in the earlier film. They are in their early thirties in the sequel, and I'd wager that I might like the second film a lot more if I were closer to that age when I first watched this series. If you wait a few days to watch Before Sunset, perhaps this sense of being slightly let down would be outweighed by an appreciation to see these characters again, now old friends after the first movie.

Linklater shared writing credits with Hawke and Delpy for this movie, and the film was shot in an astounding fifteen days. Before Sunset shares many similarities to the first film, the most obvious being the low budget aesthetic featuring long tracking shots of conversation [reaching up to eleven minutes long (!) in this entry]. Also notable is the restraint of time in both films: in the first, Jesse is flying out of Austria early the next morning and asks Celine to accompany him until he has to leave; in the second, Jesse has to catch a plane out of Paris later that afternoon and essentially the same thing happens. The continuous long takes and real-time aspect heighten the immediacy of this movie moreso than the first, providing a ticking clock effect that is subconsciously driving the film forward.

The "aimlessness" argument could be employed against this movie as well, albeit to a lesser extent: the topic of their feelings for each other is hanging heavily in the air as they go through the small talk of politics and the environment before eventually making their way to more intense subject matter. Generally speaking, though, I think it's safe to say that if you liked the first one, you'll like this one. That may sound like a "duh" kind of sentence, but the recent Crank 2: High Voltage has proven that this statement isn't always necessarily true.

Overall impressions: Before Sunrise was pretty freaking masterful. I have no idea if the flick works as a movie, but I know it had an impact on me. Before Sunset was not nearly as effective in the visceral way that Sunrise was, but it was a satisfying sequel that raised my appreciation of the series. The ambiguous endings in both movies are excellent, and I love the clever way they discussed that very topic in Sunset (the bookstore interviews in the opening scene). Collider recently did an interview with Linklater asking about a possible third movie, and the director revealed he's been talking to Julie Delpy about it, but they won't commit to a third movie just for the sake of doing it. They need a great story and a real reason to return to these characters, and that is something to be respected whether you like this series or not. Until next time...

Trivia: The waltz that Celine plays for Jesse at the end of Before Sunset was written by Julie Delpy.

1 comment:

theoncominghope said...

There's a neat story in one of Roger Ebert's books about the storyline from Before Sunrise coming to life. I wrote about it here: