In which my celebration of the recently-announced Before Midnight, concludes, with a look at the second of its precursors.
Before Sunset are so simple as to be almost crude: two characters meet in the first scene, and in 76 almost flawless real-time minutes (I had remembered there being a couple cheats between locations, but if there's more than a few seconds dropped here or there, I did not notice it) they walk around, talking non-stop: they are filmed almost exclusively in two-shots from the knee up, or occasionally a really straightforward shot-reverse shot arrangement. Until the last 10 minutes or so, there's not even the appearance of a dramatic conflict, just a ticking-clock scenario that serves as the cutoff for the rampant conversing to stop. And yet it's a stone-cold masterpiece, so I guess you just never know.
Admittedly, Before Sunset is only a masterpiece - or, anyway, is more of a masterpiece - because it is the nine-years-later sequel to Before Sunrise, which was already one of the best romantic movies of the 1990s, and so a significant part of the appeal, if not all of the appeal, lies in revisiting the characters at the exact same moment that they see one another for the first time since the end of that other picture. "Revisiting people you already like to see what they've been up to since we saw them last" isn't just Sunset's justification, it's the damn theme, and it's kind of fantastic the way that the creators were able to fold the audience's experience of the movie in with the characters'; that is to say, we're basically the protagonists of the film, given that we see exactly what they see, exactly when they see it, and we're excited to be watching for the same reason - or close to it, anyay - that they're excited to be living it.
So, in short: a masterpiece in the context of Sunrise, and outside of that context...? I don't know. I never got to be in that situation. But it's ridiculous to say that context doesn't matter. Besides the which, having the knowledge of Sunset also makes re-watching Sunrise a deeper, more involving experience, given that we are thus smarter than the characters, and feel more of a sense of dread at watching their earnest, youthful romanticism play out, because it turns out to have been such a bad choice, even more than it seemed at the time. The whole thing is kind of like watching the Star Wars films in different orders, with different things being foreshadowed, except the Before... movies involve sublime human emotions, and not Hayden Christensen stomping through scenes like a drunk marionette.
The point being, then, is that we need no introduction to Celine (Julie Delpy) or Jesse (Ethan Hawke), now graced with the surname Wallace (one several ghostly indications scattered throughout that this film is, like its predecessor, slightly more aligned with his POV than hers; maybe even a touch more than Sunrise, I am sorry to say), who in 1994, at age 23-ish, spent an afternoon and night in Vienna, falling madly in love, and deciding with the impetuous sentiment of 23-year-olds that it would ruin everything if they stayed in contact, but they should totally meet up in Vienna, six months later. This did not happen; and years later, Jesse has finally worked through his frustrations about that fact by putting the whole beautiful affair into a book titled This Time, which has recently been published; he is in Paris on the last stop of a European book tour at the legendary shop Shakespeare and Company, and Celine has taken the opportunity to surprise him by showing up - the babbling noise he makes when he spots her at the edge of the small crowd being the first of an almost uncountable number of flawless acting grace notes in this most blissfully well-acted motion picture.
In about 70 minutes, he has to hop on a plane back to the States, which leaves just enough time for a walk around a little stretch of Paris, pausing to observe a few landmarks and beautiful scenes; mostly, though, the two ex-lovers compare notes: about what that Vienna night meant to them, about where their lives have gone since, about what they hope to get out of the rest of their lives, now that they're in their early thirties and have reached that point that they can no longer drop everything and change themselves on a whim. Celine does the lion's share of the talking, prattling about her long-distance photojournalist boyfriend, her work as a political activist, her feelings about increasing maturity as a person, a woman, and a French citizen; Jesse is mostly just transparently glad to be in her presence, absorbing her thoughts, reminding himself about how happy she made him; and we find that the reason he doesn't say too much about himself is that he's stalled in a long-dead marriage held together by habit and a five-year-old son (my favorite of the film's many piercing lines in a deadly-smart script by Linklater, Delpy, & Hawke: "I feel like I'm running a small nursery with someone I used to date").
The implication I read into it - and Before Sunset is a real rarity in an American film, in that almost everything is implied and left to the viewer's imagination, making for a movie that everybody gets to interpret in their very own personal way - is that Jesse is terrified that the more he talks about his wife, the more it will be obvious he still loves Celine; and that, by the way, is the subtext to all of the other things. Talk about life, talk about philosophy, talk about politics, talk about music: it's all so much nervous energy designed to stave off the fact that these two people never fell out of love with each other and don't know what to do about reuniting. Everything down to the celebrated final exchange of dialogue - which I will not spoil, because for those who have not seen the film, coming into that moment blind is a privilege - is streaked with ambivalence: it's obvious what the characters are talking about, but not so obvious how either of them feel about it (she's nervous but excited, he's happier than he's been since '94, is my reading). And most of my personal favorite moments are one in which the characters are on the verge of expressing themselves and choke; especially when, during a limo ride, Jesse starts ranting in a very restrained way about his mutually joyless marriage, and Celine stretches out her hand while he's not looking, and just barely fails to stroke his hair (echoing and reversing a moment in Sunrise when he's about to brush her hair aside and stops himself); the best moment of romantic uncertainty of that decade - hell, one of the best visual depictions of romantic uncertainty in the entire corpus of romantic drama.
The film is, ultimately, about a strong emotional state as two people live through it: regret, lust, happy nostalgia, and frustration at being stupider in one's younger days than today. The pair of stars, giving two basically unimprovable performances that rank among the very best of the '00, are required to do all of this lifting themselves; for Linklater, in making the best film of his career, very consciously steps back and renders his art almost invisible. "Almost", because of the number of flowing, marathon-length tracking shots, all the better to capture the city-spanning conversation of Celine and Jesse with the fewest number of cuts he can manage, for cutting, like indulging in pushy, present filmmaking, would get in the way. Before Sunset is in impeccable human drama in the Scenes from a Marriage mold, where the director's goal, rightly, is to guide the actors to the richest emotions he can bring them to, and then film in the most unadorned way to make those emotions the focal point of the entire feature. None of the grand tour of Vienna that was such a beautiful feature of Before Sunrise: though Lee Daniel's photography of a Parisian afternoon ranges from lovely to fucking gorgeous (barring the occasional misstep in lighting continuity: it is obviously the case that one day of shooting, at least, was considerably more overcast than the rest, and you can see this most obviously in the boat ride sequence - but as this is only noticable to the cinematography junkie who is watching for it, and unlikely to pull anyone out of the fabric of the movie, I do not wish to consider it an artistic failing), this film doesn't pull double duty as a tour industry video like the last one did.
And that makes sense, twice over: the characters we're sharing space with aren't the starry-eyed kids who fell in love with Vienna nine years earlier, and one of them lives in Paris, so cooing over its detail and personality would make less sense for them; meanwhile, the short time they have together is hardly enough for all the things they need to express and share, and that makes extraneous sightseeing not just unnecessary but deadly. No time for miniature adventures with fortune tellers and street poets when that plane is always right there, looming. And no time for frivolous romanticism, either: and that is the most pronounced change between the films, that where the two characters were once careless and happy, they are now both a touch more cynical (Celine overtly so; Jesse seems more soulful, but his nagging habit of making cruel jokes that he immediately undercuts with a giggling "just kidding" says otherwise), a touch sadder, and a touch more desperate, and if Before Sunrise is a great story about innocent, idealistic youths finding love, Before Sunset is an even greater story about wounded, melancholy people remembering how wonderful it felt when they were innocent and idealistic (at one point, they try to entertain the grand notion that he might have spotted her once in New York; she seems awfully dubious and the point seems, to me, that he desperately wants to find some of that Star-Crossed Destiny vibe that they've both outgrown). It tells a story akin to very few other romances, and exactly like none of them: the story of a second chance for people who are too careful to trust second chances, and too eager to let them pass by.