Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Richard Linklater | Before Sunset
by Douglas Messerli
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke (screenplay, based on a concept by Linklater and Kim Krizan), Richard Linklater (director) Before Sunset / 2004
My favorite of the dialogic trilogy of the “Before” films by Richard Linklater—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight—is its centerpiece, wherein Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) meet again many years after their romantic one-night stand in Vienna. Things have changed: the confused and shiftless Jesse has become a major author who now is committed to a wife and son. The budding feminist student, Céline, has become a committed woman working to make what she describes as “small but important” changes in world cultures, bringing pencils, for example, to a school in Africa. Both have grown out of their youthful cynicism—Jesse particularly romanticizing their one night, which is also the subject of his new fiction. Yet, now both, we gradually discover, have encountered real-life disappointments about love and relationships with the other sex: Céline seems disappointed with all males, while Jesse, although loving and committed to his young son, finds his relationship with his wife to be an empty one, both spiritually and sexually, although “she’s a good teacher and mother” (although in Before Midnight we discover she’s also a highly vindictive mother).
This time, moreover, the director has taken an important step forward by involving his two actors in the script-writing itself—a brave gesture which reaps huge rewards since we cannot imagine, in many respects, that the ideas these figures express do not represent their own thinking. This, in turn, lends the fragile story a kind a deep honesty that helps to make us feel that we are listening in on truly human conversations that, despite the continuing evasion and sometimes mocking tone of their words, means something much, much deeper. It quickly becomes, apparent, in fact, that despite their open recognition that their second encounter will probably come to nothing, they are both desperate for it to result in something that might resemble the joy and pleasure of their first meeting.
They are, we realize, still very much in love, despite the fact that she has not been able to show up for their youthful reunion (her beloved grandmother had died a few days before, and the funeral conflicted with her meeting plans). But their destiny to come together again, it is suggested, has been predicted. She, like Jesse, has lived in New York during the same years in which he did; and on the way to his wedding, he admits that he had spotted a woman who looked very much like her, in the very neighborhood, she reveals, where she actually lived.
In these scenes, we recognize Linklater’s often witty and seldom sentimental “comedy” to also be a love story even more romantic that the great works of the genre such as An Affair to Remember or the darker, but just as sensual, Vertigo.
What is so remarkable to me is that Linklater is able to create such amazing films in these three works—and particularly in Before Sunset—by centering his cinema not upon action, but upon dialogue. The only major action of all three of these films is what most of us do to discover our friends and lovers, simply talk. Most movies waste so much time in the word “motion,” when the real gifts of our lives are to be discovered in simple art of human speech.
It is in his recognition that even though film, at heart, is a series of images, the “pictures” mean little if the actors cannot say or convey something beyond their pretty faces. Yes, Deply is Botticellian beauty, Hawke has a charming face and a pleasant smile, but what is most important is that these two quite otherwise ordinary individuals really can think, question, wonder, and challenge each other. I’ve come to the conclusion, moreover, that in Linklater’s ability to respect human speech and the wonder of language itself, so clearly expressed in Bernie, Boyhood and these three films, that he is one of the most important of American film directors.
Los Angeles, February 15, 2016