Saturday, November 20, 2004

Growing Up

In 1995, director Richard Linklater made a film I despised. Okay, I confess: “despised” is an overstatement. In reality I simply disliked it. But I was younger at the time, and often used phrases like “despised” when in fact what I meant was “disliked.” Hyperbole is an affliction of youth, and these can be forgiven, can’t they?

I had been a fan of Linklater for the smart, hilarious, and totally original Slacker, his first film, but Before Sunrise, which followed it, and which I did not despise, but did dislike, left me reconsidering my opinion of his talents. Slacker had been a virtuoso performance: Linklater’s camera acted as a silent, floating observer, following one kooky young Austin, Texas resident after another like an invisible relay-race baton on a seemingly aimless real-time meander through town. This narrative technique had no precedent that I’m aware of, and when combined with the inspired real world casting of quirky local characters, it produced one of the finest, and certainly the funniest, city symphony I’d seen.

It was these storytelling strengths that Linklater seemed intent to capitalize on again in Before Sunrise. Once again, the film was a city symphony of sorts (this time, Vienna). Once again, it moved (mostly) in real time, and once again the camera was a tagalong, following characters on a grand meander. But this time, instead of moving from one character to another throughout the night, it settled in on two: American Eurailer Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Parisian traveler Celine (Julie Delpy). The setup was simple enough: Jesse was such an endearing guy that Celine couldn’t help but interrupt her train ride home to Paris in order to spend an evening with him, wandering the streets of Vienna, before his flight home to the U.S. in the morning.

And indeed the similarities with Slacker did not end there. Jesse and Celine could be seen as sort of emulating the wandering camera’s position as they encountered one quirky Vienna resident after another, residents not dissimilar to those in Slacker. Two students hand them fliers for a play about a cow; a literate bum writes them an on-demand poem including the word “milkshake;” a palm reader notes “we are all made up of stardust;” a bartender gives Jesse a bottle of wine on the promise that he’ll mail him the money later.

The difference this time, though, was that our focus on Jesse and Celine never strayed. They were joined at the hip throughout the night, and so, by association, were we. Which would have been lovely if they weren’t both so irritating. What had been passed off as humorous, zany observations on life, the universe and everything by the quirky characters of Slacker were now coming out of the mouths of two young (pseudo) intellectuals as if they were profound, insightful truths.

“Man,” I thought to myself, “I hate these guys.” And by “hate,” of course, what I really meant, being young and hyperbolic, was “dislike.”

What a difference ten years makes.

It is now 2004, and Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have crafted a sequel to Before Sunrise. It is called Before Sunset, and it is the cinematic day to the first film’s night. Jesse, now ten years older, has come to a Paris bookstore to finish off a European tour promoting his latest novel. It concerns a young couple who, not unlike he and Celine, meet for a single night in Vienna. As in the first film, the characters in his book agree after one whirlwind night together to meet again on a Vienna train platform six months later. As in the film, the question of whether or not they actually do is left unanswered by the book.

But the answer is soon revealed to us, if not to the book’s audience. Celine appears from behind a bookshelf as Jesse is finishing his interview, and after a brief and cordial hello, the two, who have in fact not met since that night ten years ago, set off on another walk, faced with another deadline (Jesse leaves on a flight to the U.S. in a few hours), and an entire decade to catch up on.

Having despised (sorry: disliked) the first film so much, I was not eager to see the second. But somehow I did, and in doing so learned a great deal about how we grow up: as people, as lovers, as filmmakers. Before Sunset is an extremely careful film, made by an extremely careful filmmaker, about two people who are, by necessity, extremely careful with each other. Its pace, like its technique, is deliberate, and it ushers us one careful moment at a time toward quiet answers to the questions that these two, and by extension their audience, need to ask.

I won’t go into too much detail about the content of the discussion that forms the entirety of the film. It is too precious, too well written, and too intimately portrayed for me to easily give up the delights of observing it firsthand. But I will note that for me, the most gratifying aspect of the film is that all of its individual elements work together to express a single unifying concept: maturity.

Take as an example our two main characters. The Jesse and Celine of the first film talked the way young liberal arts students in love always do: real feelings were danced around, couched in discussions about philosophy, poetry, and gender relations, and interspersed with intellectualized, pseudo-anthropological observations on human behavior. Generally speaking, the two came off in nearly everything they said as enthusiastically naïve. Theirs were the observations of intelligent people, yes, but they were intelligent young people. They speculated about the way the world works with a sense of certainty, but it was a certainty produced by naïvete. People who have been around the block a few more times, who have seen a little more of the world, who have known a few more people and had a few more relationships, would never talk the way they did then.

People, for instance, like the Jesse and Celine of Before Sunset. In the current film, the two reveal about themselves a skepticism which hadn’t been present a decade before. When Jesse tells Celine a story about German soldiers refusing to set off explosive charges to destroy Notre Dame at the end of the occupation, she asks him something she never would have the first time around: “Is that true?” And his answer, too, has been prefigured by a loss of adolescence: “I don’t know.” Similar stories told to each other on that brief night in their youth had been accepted on faith.

This more developed worldview reveals itself even more significantly in the mannerisms of the two with respect to one another. A decade earlier, their exuberance for each other had been breathless, but now they take the care that is required by two people who want to do each other no unintended harm. Answering the question of whether either of them showed up at the train platform requires delicate footwork, for if one of them had, it must have been hurtful to them that the other had not. The fact that Jesse is now married arises very late in the conversation, tentatively observed by Celine, who has read it on his book’s jacket cover. And so on.

It is this care, too, which keeps them from the frank subject of whether they still have feelings for one another, a fact which provides far more suspense than one might expect from such a gentle little movie. Late in the film, as the deadline looms over them, Jesse stares out a car window and admits something he thinks perhaps he shouldn’t. Celine silently responds with a small, perfect physical gesture, unnoticed by him, which speaks volumes. It is a precious, human moment of a kind rarely seen in movies, and it begins an inexorable process: the brick-by-brick removal of the buttress wall that the two have been building for each other’s protection throughout the afternoon. This circumspect, deliberate, emotionally considerate behavior is of a kind that would have been inconceivable to Jesse and Celine in their youth, but we have no troubles accepting it as consistent with the mature adults they have become.

Gloriously, the growing up which Jesse and Celine have done is mirrored by that which the filmmakers themselves seem to have undergone. Hawke and Delpy co-wrote the screenplay - the aforementioned aspects of maturity evident in the older Jesse and Celine were bestowed upon them by these two grown up writers. Their central thesis here seems to be that getting older is no anathema to the concept of romance; that in fact, mature romance may even be more satisfying. A grown-up idea indeed.

And as delightful as it is to watch these young, irritating lovers become older, seasoned, more likable ones, the evidence in the film of Linklater’s maturing is even more satisfying for me to observe. The differences between the filmmaker who made Before Sunrise and the one who ten years later made Before Sunset are striking.

There are a few very nicely observed moments in the first film. At one point, young Celine and Jesse enter a listening booth at a record store and pretend to listen studiously to music while we watch them sneaking surreptitious glances at each other. In a bar, much later in the evening, they play a telephone game, pretending to talk with friends about their newfound lovers, and in doing so reveal themselves to one another.

But these are moments that seem more accident than plan, more ad-lib than studied choice. In this respect they depend more on the actors than the director. This makes them no less appealing, but the film is filled with at least as many misfire moments. One in particular, another discussion in a bar, is so filled with distraction (they play pinball as they speak) that the subject of the conversation, which was of the pseudo-intellectual variety to begin with, is completely lost. This balance of hits and misses within the film reinforces the impression that it was made by a young filmmaker.

Not so the Linklater of Before Sunset. One of the strongest signals of his new maturity here is his ability to examine the earlier film and accurately reference in it the elements that worked. For me the most effective scene in Before Sunrise is the montage which closes it, a series of locked-off shots in which we see, one at a time, the places Jesse and Celine inhabited the night before: the alley where they talked, the café table where they had their palms read, the lawn where they made love, two glasses and a bottle still sitting there unnoticed as an old woman passes them by. They are all bathed in a cold morning light, and the absence of the two lovers’ animated voices leaves them feeling empty, and their audience feeling wistful.

And just as the first film ended with such a montage, so, in totally symmetrical fashion, Before Sunset begins with one: a series of locked-off shots of empty spaces in Paris, each of which will soon be filled with the voices and lives of these two. It is an absolutely deliberate choice, reflecting Linklater’s understanding of the structure of his first film, and by extension making plain the fact that he is a filmmaker who has learned from experience.

But perhaps the clearest example of his growth is his execution of the technical high-wire act that serves as the film’s structure. While Before Sunrise was a film that more or less moved in real time, Before Sunset is a film that takes place in absolutely rigid continuity. Aside from its opening montage, the film moves forward without a single lost second. To be sure, there are cuts (no film camera in the world can hold ninety minutes of film stock), but these are only the briefest of breaks, sometimes made for practical editing purposes (to move to a different take of the same scene, for instance), or sometimes to intentionally allow the audience a breath.

At the same time, it is also important to note that the film is not entirely composed of long takes, as one review I read of it suggested. There are in fact long scenes shot in traditional shot-reverse (the café, the bookstore). But the long steadicam and dolly shots that Linklater favors here are so immediate, and so appropriately encapsulate the simple nature of the story (two people walking and talking) that it is easy to remember the film this way in retrospect.

What is surprising, and what to my thinking is the greatest technical achievement of the film, is that the difficulties of maintaining this continuity will in all likelihood go completely unnoticed by all but the most wonkish viewers. This is in part a testament to the totally absorbing nature of the dialogue (both spoken and unspoken), but this alone could not have sustained it had not Linklater been very careful with his editorial choices.

The best example of this occurs during the central sequence of the film, in which Jesse and Celine step onto a tour boat on the Seine and continue their conversation, which reaches a poignant beat just as they arrive at the dock on the far side. It is a masterpiece of timing. If you watch carefully, you can see how editing achieved it, but it was nonetheless created both in the script and on set in a way that gets the two to the other shore at exactly the right moment. And yet these sorts of micro-observations are deflected by the strength of the scene itself. The fact is that the final product of this deliberately created sequence is one that flows so smoothly, whose subjects are so compelling, it seems like pure accident that they get off the boat when they do.

There are other choices in the film that also echo its director’s matured talents. In 1995, for instance, Linklater never would have thought to leave one of these two alone by themselves – they seemed joined by a short, invisible tether the entire evening. Here, there is a wonderful pause, also on the boat: as Jesse dials his driver, the camera drifts away to follow Celine, wandering forward with her to the prow, where it watches her quietly smiling to herself.

Or perhaps it is the characters who have changed in this way. One could argue that in 1995 they wouldn’t let each other out of their sight, but now, years later, that thrilling, terrifying fear of losing each other has been replaced with the temperance and calm that time and distance have thrown in its way. These are two people who after all this time may dance around their emotions with each other, but they are also calmer, more rational, more deliberate people now.

And then there is the final scene. It cannot be discussed here, for doing so would ruin what is truly one of the great moments in contemporary cinema. But suffice it to say that it involves a question which is not spoken by Celine, but communicated by her nonetheless, and with absolute clarity. And because our arrival at the scene has been so meticulously crafted, moment by moment, by three filmmakers who, like the characters they have created, have matured with age, Jesse’s response to the unspoken query is not simply inevitable – it has in fact been prefigured in our own dreams.

Had I been able to see it in 1995, I would have said that Before Sunset is one of the best films I’d ever seen. Now, in 2004, I am older and hopefully a little wiser, hopefully less prone to such hyperbolic overstatement.

And Before Sunset is one of the best films I have ever seen.