CINEMA.

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YOU CAN HAVE SPIDEY. I'LL TAKE LINKLATER.
[posted 12.16.2004]

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FOR 10 YEARS, GIVE or take, December 16 — along with the questions and answers it posed — has reverberated for two fictional lovers and the legions of real-life dreamers who experienced their romance secondhand, via Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater’s 1995 film.

As young twentysomethings, the American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy) shared just one afternoon, evening and dawn zigzagging across Vienna, falling into something that felt awfully like love. Determined to be rational and adult about their meeting, they resolved to accept their night as a one-time encounter — until it was time to say goodbye. Then both confessed it was the last thing they wanted. Yet nor did they wish for the slow fade of letter-writing and awkward transatlantic phone calls. They swore instead to meet again six months later — on December 16, 1994 — in the same place. Any communication in the meantime could only be depressing, so they never exchanged phone numbers, addresses or even last names, the idiots.

One more kiss, or two, and then Celine hopped on the train as it chugged toward Paris. Jesse boarded a bus for the airport, and viewers watched each fight to retain and reflect on all the talk and emotion of the last 14 hours before drifting into exhausted, happy slumber.

It was marvelous, and cruel, of Linklater to leave his audience hanging so, wondering and arguing over that fateful date six months in the unknowable future. His simple, albeit stirring, tale of boy meets girl evolved, at the last moment, into a romantic Rorschach test for its audience. Would both Jesse and Celine — would either of them — show up on December 16? Cynics said of course not; romantics said yes, of course. But there remained an expanse in between for the hopeful realists of the world, those of us susceptible to doubt, to über-awareness of the way life’s routine and unpredictability can get in the way — and how hard it can be to decide when we should and should not fight against it.

The debate finally ended this summer, with the release of Before Sunset, the real-time story of the pair’s reunion nine years later in Paris. Their first reunion, that is. (He showed, she didn’t — but she had a good reason!) Linklater, Hawke and Delpy wrote the screenplay together, and this time Jesse and Celine have only 80 minutes before he has to leave for another airport. Yet it’s time enough: Confronted not only with the ghosts of their romantic, hopeful, younger selves, but also with a connection that feels just as potent and rare as they’ve come to remember it, neither can help but realize how much they’ve changed. Experience has taught them to expect, if not entirely accept, much less.

Basking in the melancholy, full-hearted glow of Before Sunset, it’s hard not to notice how much movie-goers have been taught to settle, too — for fast edits, elaborate special effects and cursory characterization. While major studio movie budgets are ballooning like never before, the overall result seems, well, stingy. These days, when a film allows us to salvage just one or two near-real moments amid the din, we feel giddy with our luck and declare it a masterpiece.

But no more. For my money, Richard Linklater is the superhero of the year, swooping in with an achingly personal emotional thrill ride. Forget the adrenaline rush of arch-villains and guns to the head; this film captures the desperate suspense that comes with finding — and recognizing — a heart and mind connection with someone who could blow your life wide open, if only you’ll let them.

Celine

At this time last year, moviegoers were abuzz over another tale of travelers connecting against a foreign landscape, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Several critics drew parallels between it and Before Sunrise, but look closely, and you’ll find two very different films with very different aims.

Unfulfilled in their respective marriages, Lost‘s Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) drift through lonely, sleepless evenings high above sharp, fluorescent Tokyo. They meet in the hotel bar and form a tenuous connection (forged through companionable silence and chitchat about the little things) — that is in every way specific to the moment, to his greater experience and her youthful disappointment. As the audience, we’re asked to wait and watch and wallow, too, yet when Bob whispers his last, affecting words to Charlotte, it’s not for our ears. In the end, Lost is a meditation on insularity, employing device, the well-framed image and remove to illustrate how it feels to be the odd man out.

With its boy-girl discourse and fairy-tale situation, the easy synopsis was to file Before Sunrise under “twentysomething romance.” Ethan Hawke was fresh off his Reality Bites turn as a philosophizing, womanizing, Gen X poster boy, and, since he sported the same greasy, flapping hair and goatee as Jesse, it was convenient to claim he was just playing that same character. (One friend dismissed Sunrise as the story of a guy spending a whole night talking a girl into sleeping with him.)

Yet, both ideas — the ’90s American slacker and the suspicion of his intentions — have something to do with the film’s charm. Delpy’s Celine, an articulate, passionate stunner, seems in every way out of his league. Jesse knows it; that’s why he clumsily tries so hard. The audience knows it, too; we sense that she sees through his attempts to be cool (“Are you trying to say you want to kiss me?”), but has found something worthwhile in him anyway.

Linklater makes his characters take the long way — actual communication, rather than several meet-cutes and a series of “hilarious” elaborate misunderstandings — to romance. As a result, the film is far more about what it is to be young in the world, full of stories and thoughts, with so much more to learn.

Jesse and Celine have just passed the point where one really starts to get a sense of life as a finite journey. It’s the time when we start to paint our own story — to explain who we are — by sharing childhood anecdotes, cherished dreams and heartbreaks rather than explaining where we’re from and what movies we like. And so the audience gets to know Jesse and Celine — and they get to know each other — as two people shaped by the communities they grew up in. They speak about their families, things friends have said and done and yes, what they themselves think and feel. In the process, they form the kind of bond that we all search for, the kind that, once lost, haunts us. But they’re too young (and stupid, as they’ll later agree) to realize what they’ve found.

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Yes, Before Sunrise is nearly all conversation, but it’s Hawke and Delpy who transform their pages of dialogue into full-bodied communication. Linklater and his actors nail the specifics of these characters not just in what they choose to say (and when), but in how they express themselves. While still on the train, both Jesse and Celine offer up personal details and memories, but shrug them off just as quickly, unsure if the other will laugh or groan or follow with one of their own. Celine recalls her first crush — on a swimmer at camp who was like a “gorgeous dolphin” — and grows giddy in the retelling, channeling that feeling of whee! that returns so effortlessly when we recall those first all-consuming infatuations.

Love may be the hook that brought these two together, but a very different subject surfaces again and again during the night: the awareness of death, the passing of time, the end. Celine takes Jesse to a cemetery she visited when she was 13, and is shaken to find herself older now than the girl whose headstone she most remembered.Sunrise captures these lovers just as they’re beginning to feel and accept the gravity of their existence, their aging and changing, but are still hopeful for what they might accomplish. And sure of what they ought to avoid: Jesse talks of his parents, finally divorced, who stayed together for the sake of his littler sister and him, long after his mother had let him in on the fact that his conception had been “a mistake.” While he wants to be a good father someday, he can’t help thinking that it wouldn’t be enough, if he couldn’t achieve professional success as well.

As for Celine, her parents are still happy, still together. Even when they fight, they end up laughing. On the other hand, her grandmother has just revealed to her a secret disappointment:

My grandmother, she was married to this man and I always thought she had a very simple, uncomplicated love life. But she just confessed to me that she spent her whole life dreaming about another man she was always in love with. She just accepted her fate. It’s so sad. And in the same time, I love the idea that she had all those emotions and feelings I never thought she would have had.

In 1995, this was one delicious detail in a film brimming with them. But Before Sunset puts a new spin on Celine’s anecdote: Is it still so wonderful, this complication and thwarted love, the sequel asks, when it happens to you?

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.