If you've perused the Before Sunset tag here on Cinematical, you've noticed that I write a lot of posts on the sequel to Before Sunrise. Yes, it's partially fan fervor, but it's also something more. How can I not write about the film when discussing my favorite romantic scene, or the best sequels of the last decade? The Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke collaboration is one of the best examples of so many aspects of cinema. It reveals how a film series and characters should grow and mature for a sequel. It exemplifies the possibilities and reach when romance is done well. It shows the potential of real-time features.
But what it does better than anything else -- It lasts. There are many films out there that seem truly stunning at first glance, but after a second, third, or fourth visit, they lose that charm -- if they even lure you in for multiple visits at all. Before Sunset, which is nothing more than a pair reuniting after many years to catch up and talk about their romantic paths, offers many levels to parse and enjoy for years to come. I picked this for Movie Club because I know it well. But then I worried. Having written about many aspects before, was there anything new to say?
Yes. Even six years later, Before Sunset continues to be a cinematic treat.
What struck me most in this most recent viewing was a hint I'd never caught before. It's as clear as day, and most certainly a message to questioning fans, though it somehow never hit me until now. Jesse is promoting his book in a Paris book shop and fields the question about whether his book is autobiographical. The interviewer simply wants to know if the story actually happened -- if he met a girl on a train and had a passionate, foreign night with her.
But it also works as an immediate cue to the viewer. (Or should be, if you're not as thick as I was, watching it the first hundred times.) The film was shot and released during the end of Hawke's marriage to Uma Thurman, and as Hawke's Jesse talks about his struggling, cold marriage, it's hard not to wonder how much reality is infused into both the words and performance. Jesse tells the interviewer, right from the get-go, that a creator can't avoid using "the clay of real life." It's the material that helps him craft the work, not the creation itself.
It's a great metaphor for the film. Obviously, Hawke took inspiration from his real life, but when Jesse talks about his problems, it doesn't feel like an uncomfortable revelation of real-life thoughts. It becomes an even more notable outpouring of emotion.
This has even further impact because Jesse is not the talker in the sequel. In his idealistic and sarcastic Before Sunrise youth, Jesse makes smart, cynical comments and loves to tell stories and offer his opinion on any number of subjects. But times have changed. Rather than still believing we're many fractions of reincarnated people as the population explodes, he has found idealism, believing that in all the drama in the world, it's slowly getting better. In Sunset, he's the positive and passive figure, whimsical, romantic, and perfectly content to silently listen to Celine. No matter what she says, he sits there with a look of awe and happiness in his eyes, just like that first warm, sunny Spring day after a long winter.
Celine, likewise, changed from the romantic into the cynic. In Before Sunrise she talked about the horror of learning that her grandmother settled romantically, and was caught up in the romance of an immediate poem and a vague gypsy fortune. In the sequel, she's jaded. The romance has gone, and where she once held a sense of whimsy, now she doesn't believe in anything -- ghosts, spirits, reincarnation, or God. "No, not at all," she says. "I was thinking for me it's better I don't romanticize things so much anymore. I was suffering so much all the time."
She's become closed off in her post-Jesse pain, choosing to fill the silence with anecdote upon anecdote as a wall from reality, and Jesse just listens. Where the absence of Celine has given Jesse some sort of hope, even if it does add further discontent within his marriage, it's made Celine physically recoil from love, finding it restrictive and suffocating.
Their mature selves manage to be both the characters we love, and new incarnations that are the result of their experiences. Their changes make sense, and help fuel the narrative forward.
On the page it sounds sappy. Two people talk about life and love all day. But it goes to show just how engaging any genre can be if done right. I was never keen on westerns until being dragged off to see The Proposition at TIFF, and Before Sunset seems to work similarly with the romance-phobic. It works because the talent involved knows how to balance aspects. Any fantasy is only as good as the reality linked to it, and they realize that. Though their romantic meeting is ideal, and their reunion is the stuff of created fate, they still feel like us, trying to make the most of their lives. It's not a happily ever after romance with castles and horses. It's one that almost seems in our reach.
Perhaps that's dangerous, giving us hope for something that might not exist, but it's a sweet, compelling experience all the same.
- It's been six years since the film has been released, which means that we're facing another potential sequel if they continue the series. Should there be a third part? What can and should the couple experience now?
- Is it possible that ending ambiguity isn't the problem with sequels, but how that ambiguity is treated? Though some complain about answer that which should remain ambiguous, Sunset certainly improved on the first film, though it answered the remaining will-they-or-won't-they question.
- What do you think makes the romance so magical, and the film so well-received?
- Before Sunset used real time to great success. Is this something filmmakers should use more, or was it simply right for this particular story?
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