I’m probably biased, but I’ve always considered Richard Linklater’s Before
Sunrise to be a film which is loved by those who have seen it, and hated
by those who haven’t. Linklater is one of the most interesting American directors
working today, but Before Sunrise has always had difficulty being taken
seriously. It’s obvious why: its central conceit is incredibly corny, and Ethan
Hawke has always been rather off-putting. I’m convinced, however, that the film
is a minor masterpiece, a genuinely romantic film with so much intelligence
and honesty that it transcends and reinvents its genre.
I was worried, then, I have to admit, when I saw the trailer
for the sequel, Before Sunset. Mister Voiceover – you know him,
the guy with the deep voice who does all those "in a world…" trailers
– intones dreadful copy ("now, they have one afternoon to find out
if they belong together") over a horribly obtrusive soundtrack. I was convinced
that Linklater had sold out, delivering a schmaltzy piece of summer romantic
fluff in the wake of his kid-friendly School of Rock.
I should have had more faith. After all, School of Rock was an excellent
film itself, and Linklater is still at the stage of his career where he’s
much more likely to overreach
than he is to phone it in. (I must wonder, however, how on earth he ended up
allowing that trailer to go out.) It turns out that Before Sunset is
just as wonderful as Before Sunrise was, and despite having a budget
four times the size of the original, actually works within much greater limitations.
Before Sunset is, to all intents and purposes, a Dogme film. Look
down the list of criteria in the famous vow
of chastity, and, if you consider a Steadicam to be handheld and ignore
the director’s credit, Before Sunset fulfills all of them. Unlike the
trailer, there is no soundtrack: the only music comes when Celine (Julie Delpy)
sings a song, and when Jesse (Ethan Hawke) plays a CD on a home midi system.
In fact, Before Sunset imposes another genuinely onerous limitation
upon itself: the entire film is shot in real time. The 80 minutes of the film
correspond to 80 minutes in the lives of our protagonists, which means the whole
dramatic arc has to play itself out over the course of one long conversation.
And there really is a dramatic arc: this is not – or not only
– a film of ideas, in the tradition of My Dinner With Andre.
Real feelings get explored, and one scene, in the back of a limousine, is the
equal, in emotional clout, of any Oscar-winning drama.
That said, Ethan Hawke is still rather off-putting. His annoying facial hair
remains from the original movie, but in the intervening years he also seems
to have picked up Tom Cruise’s horrible, fake, please-kick-me-in-the-teeth grin.
Frankly, he’s an obnoxious arsehole. His opposite number, Julie Delpy, is not
much more attractive herself: both actors wear decidedly unflattering clothing
(although Hawke clearly spends far too much time on his hair), and a large part
of the genius of the film is the way in which it touches us with the love that
two people feel for each other, even when we can’t really see what the attraction
is in either of them.
There are weak points in the film, especially when Julie Delpy recounts the
time she spent in New York. She talks about living "in the US", and
recounts a story of a police officer telling her that she should go out and
buy a gun – something which would simply never happen if, as she says,
she was living on the corner of 11th Street and Broadway in downtown Manhattan.
Similarly, she compares the "have a nice day" attitude of Americans
to the more dour people she encounters in Paris – again, that’s the sort
of observation which rings true anywhere in America except New York
I was also not entirely taken with the ending, which I shan’t give away here,
but which felt far too clean and simplistic to me. In some ways, Before
Sunset is much more romantic than Before Sunrise. Even as Celine
and Jesse talk at length about their loss of innocence over the past nine years
and the way in which they no longer aspire to or think in romantic clichés,
the director seems to have moved in the opposite direction. The sequel doesn’t
have the wonderful bittersweet open-endedness of the original, nor does it leave
open, as Before Sunrise did, the question of whether the two kids were
ultimately deluding themselves if they thought that a highly artificial night
in Vienna could bespeak eternal love.
Before Sunset does, on the other hand, have some great dialogue, filmed
in endless virtuoso takes, and it shows us that most difficult of emotions to
pin down on screen – love – with a tender yet unblinking eye. The
real achievement of this film is in its asceticism, in its ability to give up
not only the crutches which Dogme has already abandoned, but also give up the
plot twists and complications which turn most love stories into fully-fledged
movies. In one scene, Jesse watches Celine dance. And despite the fact that
you don’t really care about either of the characters, you can see that Jesse
loves Celine, and loves the way she dances. And so, even though we might not
think much of Jesse, or of Celine, or of Celine’s dancing, we still care: about
the emotion that connects them, and which is the raison d’être
for this film and its predecessor. Linklater has gambled, successfully, twice,
that love, alone, can make a movie.