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Before Sunset – soulmates meet up again

an attraction of fate

an attraction of fate

Before Sunset – Richard Linklater

Before Sunset is a movie for writers. The love story is a tough genre: if we don’t connect with the characters and their relationship – there is no film. Jesse and Celine connect; with each other and with us, even after the nine years since they, and we, last met. The writing makes this work (Hawke, Linklater and Delpy). Superbly.

Although flashbacks fill in the background of Before Sunrise to which Sunset is the sequel, I feel some of the impact of the current film will be lost if you have not seen the first. Before Sunrise had a romantic charm which engendered great affection from all but the most cynical. It shared with the current film excellent writing which brought alive two engaging, intelligent, questioning young people whose meeting was random enough to imply, romantically, that fate had brought them together; that they were destined to meet. Through their open, fearless frankness with one another they reached a rare degree of intellectual and emotional intimacy very quickly. This was so convincing that it rendered their eventual (possible) physical intimacy a meaningful expression of real feeling between them rather than random one night sex between strangers.

In Before Sunset we discover what went wrong with their 6 months tryst with all the flirtatious wit and verbal sparring that made the first film stand out. But here we see the strength of the aspiration of Before Sunset. It would have been so easy to re-make the previous film set nine years later and give a certain kind of romantic filmgoer the ending they wanted last time. I gather that director Linklater, Hawke and Delpy were at one in resisting this. They wanted, and have achieved with some qualifications, a real development from the previous film. Jesse is trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage kept alive by his love for his small son. He has achieved success of a sort with a novel essentially recounting the night in Vienna with Celine. The book is the basis of their meeting again.

The heart of these two films is summed up in Before Sunrise by Celine:

“You know I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us; not you or me, just this little space in between. If there is any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt,”

It is the development in the characters in the intervening 9 years that is at issue. Can we see these two as both on the one hand different, because of the effects of the intervening 9 years of life and experience, yet also essentially the same two people who met in that “little space between.”

There is no doubt that between them the three writers have succeeded in creating two such believable characters. But here is a critical dilemma. The writers who created these original characters obviously developed a conception of how each should be after 9 years. As that conception is credible and realised, it cannot strictly be gainsaid. After all within certain limits we could all imagine them having turned out differently. So there must be a reference point against which criticism of the latest conception can be measured. There can only be one such reference: is the spirit of the two people and their original relationship preserved between the two films?

And it is here, despite the quality of the new film, that I at least, feel some disappointment. First it is my impression that Jesse in underwritten in Sunset versus Sunrise: he is a more equal protagonist in the first film and this balances the mutual discovery each of the other on which the charm and fascination of their developing relationship rested. This imposes extra weight on Delpy which she copes with very well but a forward looking discussion about her passionate newly found political and social commitment early in the film is rapidly abandoned in favour of the backward-looking conversation about the emotional consequences of her sense of loss at losing touch with Jesse. Jesse has already confessed himself to be a reluctant, disillusioned husband only remaining married for the sake of his son. Thus the pattern of the film and their rediscovery of each other becomes narrow and essentially backward looking. Even Jesse’s one success is a book nostalgically centered on their night together nine years before.

This constrains both the film and their relationship in total contrast to Sunrise. There every discussion was open-ended, spinning randomly, fascinatingly from sex to God, art and morality, getting old, marriage etc. Two minds fizzing with ideas, hope and curiosity, wondering about life and its possibilities. Unwittingly perhaps, Celine in Sunset becomes at times almost a sad figure, trapped by the past. A credible enough outcome, but doing little justice to the passionate, independent, questioning young woman in Sunrise.

My other cavil with Sunset is a kind of sexual reductionism that eventually prevails. Sunrise was about two young people falling in love for whom sex was to be a meaningful expression not just of youthful passion but also of the intimacy derived from having achieved the almost impossible – meeting in that “little space between” and successfully, intoxicatingly, “understanding someone and sharing something.”

It was very clear in Sunrise that it was not just about two people who fancied each other or even lusted after one another. Celine resisted sex in the park because she didn’t want the whole evening to have been “just for that”. She didn’t want to become a story of conquest that he later loved to tell friends about. That would have cheapened everything else.

This sensibility is rather lost in Sunset. Whether this marks the greater input of Hawke and Delpy over Linklater in the second film I don’t know but the end result is that Celine’s disarming ‘no-hang-ups’ openness and frankness about sex in Sunrise is allowed to degenerate at times into a kind of coarseness or vulgarity in Sunset. And the sideswipe at Frenchmen as not being ‘horny’ enough is simply gratuitously out of place. It is as if the only way the writers could think of expressing and demonstrating Celine’s feisty independence was by making her talk dirty and demand the right to get as much sex as she wants. This is an essentially adolescent American obsession which tips the tone of the film disastrously away from the richer, more complex French or European sexual sensibility expressed by Celine in Sunrise.

Once established this tone begins to unbalance the film and despite the excellent writing and playing in other areas, it falls precisely into the trap Celine explicitly resisted in Sunrise: When they meet again in Sunset the dramatic drive gradually narrows into a motivation of “just for that.” That is a disservice to the first film and the integrity of the deeper characterisation found there. It also generates the only really false note in the film. It is not the ending as such: I agree with other critics that it is an excellent ending ( though certainly not as good as Lost In Translation) but for me the action within which the ending takes place does not quite work and as such leaves an impression of Celine which is at odds not just with her Sunrise character, but also with the stylish, intelligent, fascinating woman we see in the earlier part of Before Sunset.

At its worst moments, and there aren’t many, Before Sunset appears to have substituted lust for passion; nostalgia for curiosity and hope; and frustrated desire for mutual tenderness and an infectious sense of fun about life and sex. It is the worse for it: judged by the extraordinarily high standards of Before Sunrise.

(August 2004)

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