the Goliard

August 2004

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Before Sunset

We at the Goliard have been big fans of director Richard Linklater (shown mid-page directing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) ever since we took a break one day during gradual school from spewing doggerel and arguing half ass theories with other dead beats to stumble in off the street one hot Tucson afternoon and catch his first film Slacker. We still remember the feeling of being completely flummoxed by the experience when the movie turned out to be a total doppelganger about a bunch of folks who looked hauntingly familiar and who were themselves stumbling around the dusty streets of the similar college town of Austin, TX and doing basically nothing other than behaving exactly as we young goliards were and having many of the same senseless conversations we had been having. We still place the film in our top five despite the probably fifty subsequent viewings and have made it a point to catch all Linklater's later efforts as soon as they come to the theaters. And although he hasn't quite been able to recreate the spontaneity and low budget brilliance of Slacker, each film has been excellent in its own way with almost all of them having in common that they take place in the span of a day or less and focus more on people exchanging real ideas in real time without relying on cinematic effects of any kind. The latest, Before Sunset, is no exception.

Before Sunset is a sequel to Linklater's third feature Before Sunrise which told the story of American traveler Jesse (Ethan Hawke) who met French graduate student Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train from Budapest to Vienna. The two spend the next fourteen hours together hanging out and walking around the Austrian city finding that they are either falling in love with each other or with the idea of falling in love with a stranger in such a short time. They are young after all and it is unclear to them and us whether this is indeed a truly special encounter or just another fourteen hours of the whirlwind tour of youth. When morning comes and she must return to school, they tenentively agree to meet six months later and the film ends without speculating whether either of them will show up. 

Well one of them showed up and the other didn't, as it turns out, and Before Sunset picks up nine years later as Jesse visits Paris on the final leg of a book tour. He is a writer now and has just written a novel, which he is touring to support, based on the one night they spent together and that he has not been able to get out of his head in the years since. When she shows up at the reading, they have an hour or so to get caught up before he has to head to the airport and back to New York and his wife and son. They spend it walking through Paris in real time, talking about what has happened to each of them, and slowly realizing that the night nine years ago had as weighty an effect on one as the other. The movie again ends ambiguously although not without some suggested sense of closure and it looks like we'll have to wait another decade or so to see what else, if anything, befalls them. 

 It's hard to tell in the sequel as it was in the first installment whether the acting is really good or whether Hawke and Delpy (at right in a scene from another Linklater film Waking Life) are playing so much of their own selves that it seems almost effortless. They also helped write Sunset and have a great chemistry on screen for whatever reason and although she seems far more desirable as a person than he does (even to the females on staff who have seen both films) it is easy to believe that the two actually hit it off and were affected by the knowledge of each other for all these years. However, although the two actors obviously dominate the film with their presence, the film feels to us like it is more about using them as a vehicle to explore dreams, travels, what ifs, and the travails of life than it is about the two specific people. Not that the characters aren't compelling on their own, but ever since Linklater first appeared in the initial scene in Slacker where he climbs into a cab and immediately wonders aloud to the cabbie whether he should have found different transportation home from the bus station since he could have possibly met the girl of his dreams, he and Sunrise co-creator Kim Krizan (she appears in Slacker as well as the girl questioning ultimate happiness) have been exploring paths not taken and reminding us that the road we are on isn't necessarily the one where we belong. In Before Sunset, even though it was Celine that didn't show up for their rendezvous because of a death in the family, since she wasn't ever sure if he showed up either, she never really knew if she had lost anything but always wondered, and the idea that she missed something worked it's way into all her subsequent relationships as she struggled to again experience romantic love. 

After she didn't appear in Vienna, Jesse went on with his life as well, getting married and having a child, but always thought about Celine even on the way to his wedding, where he could have sworn that he saw her out the window as he was driving to the church (he thought he was seeing things but it could have actually been her, we find out, since she spent a couple years working in New York and was living just a few blocks away at the time). He then goes on to start a family, but feels the need to spend several years writing a book about the night they were together which she then reads and the whole thing is reopened again. Since we all have past experiences similar to this on one level or another, the film leaves us pondering the version of reality that we currently face by reminding us of all the other possibilities that fell by the wayside as we ventured hither and yon about the glebe. And anyone who's spent time traveling around and had fleeting acquaintances with various strangers here and there over the years will walk out of the film reminded that they have no idea what became of most of the people that seemed so important at the time and how many relationships they had could have reached a different fruition had circumstances allowed or been slightly different. Like most of Linklater film's Before Sunset bucks the cinematic trend by illustrating that perfectly scripted endings aren't always the norm and real life tends to get away from people. It also proves that an 80 minute film that contains no footage of things blowing up, no nudity, none of the latest special effects, no multiple exotic film locations, no gunplay and none of the bells and whistles that recent cinema seems to feel is necessary, can make for a great and thought provoking summer movie all the same.

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