Friday, August 20, 2004

Before Sunset

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2004 at the Arlington Capitol #1 (second-run)

As beautiful and joyous and smart as Before Sunset is, it's not quite as perfect as Before Sunrise. Part of that is simply the length; after waiting nine years (OK, it was a week in my case) to find out whether or not Jesse and Celine met in Vienna, and hour and twenty minutes doesn't seem like enough time to catch up with them. When the movie comes to an ending as sweet and open-ended as that of the first, someone in the seat behind me actually cried out, apparently not ready for it to be finished - which in some ways is a compliment.

Maybe what I'm about to say isn't so much a shortcoming as much as it's simply a way that Before Sunset is different from Before Sunrise. But where the first film tapped into a sort of universal experience, this new one is more specific, more movie-like. It requires these two particular characters with their particular histories. Their meeting this time is also more clearly part of a story. Second chances are extraordinary things; fewer people in the audience can identify with that than with being bowled over by someone you may never see again. The closest I've come is spotting a familiar email address in a roommates wanted ad, and as she'll attest if she's reading this, that's probably not very close (she's much too smart to get involved with me beyond splitting the occasional free-pass-for-two to a movie).

That this movie is more pointedly about Celine and Jesse is no bad thing, though. As the disappointment with the short running time demonstrates, they are good cinematic company. They spend the first half of the film seeming to pick up right where they left off, chatting like old friends, talking about why they didn't meet up in Vienna like they'd planned as well as politics and what they've been doing. The wedding ring on Jesse's finger hangs over their conversation until Celine finally brings it up, and soon after, we learn just what kind of an effect that one night almost a decade earlier has had on their lives, and how that one perfect moment frozen in memory has made it difficult for anything else to measure up.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the movie's stars, have aged gracefully in the nine years between movies. Though Hawke still looks somewhat youthful, and the way he talks still displays a boyish enthusiasm and American optimism, it fits his character, who in the first movie stated he always feels like a kid imagining he's a grown-up. Delpy loks more grown-up when compared to what we see in flashbacks, but is still just as playful. As an aside, despite a few obligatory "freedom fries" comments, director Richard Linklater and his co-writer/stars mostly sidestep any transatlantic tension. As much as relations between the America and France are frosty right now, Jesse and Celine represent their respective countries' best qualities, and though they're aware of the world outside their own lives, they don't let it come between them.

The first few minute of the movie are a bit worrisome, as Jesse talks with the patrons of a bookstore where he's signing his new novel (whose plot is similar to Before Sunrise), and comes off looking like a guy who's not as smart as he thinks he is. On reflection, it winds up serving as a contrast with how he and Celine fit together. After all, as with Sunrise, it's not just what the two say to each other, but how they say it, and what their body language suggests. The little sideways glances are more fraught with peril, as both are smart enough to realize that in addition to the logistical problems falling for each other would have presented in 1994, 2003 offers a whole bunch of personal entanglements.

I do love these movies, and hope that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy get together for at least one more, even as I delight in the uncertain future hinted at by the last scene. From their comments while promoting Sunset, it's a labor of love for them, and I wouldn't be surprised if they kept checking in on Jesse and Celine every five or ten years for the rest of their lives.

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