Before Swooning

It has taken me a few days to decide exactly what it is I have to say about Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, a pair of films by Richard Linklater that absolutely blew my mind this past weekend and immediately landed on my “all-time favorites” list.

Before Sunrise was made in 1995, and may be the best date movie of all time. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy star as Jesse and Celine, two beautiful early-twentysomethings who meet on a European train. Jesse is headed to Vienna; Celine is traveling onward to Paris, where she is a student. But Jesse persuades Celine to disembark in Vienna and while the night away with him before he catches a morning flight home to the States. They kill time mostly by wandering around the city, talking. And falling in love.

Linklater films are not for everyone. They are driven not by plot but by dialogue—often wannabe-intellectual, armchair-philosopher dialogue spoken by annoyingly precocious characters. (Listening to the rotoscoped hipsters in Waking Life muse on the nature of time made me want to put my fist through a wall; I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was hearing excerpts from Philosophy for Dummies.) But in Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine manage to wax poetic about this and that while keeping their feet on the ground. They remain one hundred percent convincing, one hundred percent believable, if for no other reason than this: They have every reason in the world to talk about the dreamlike nature of reality, or the tragic passage of time, for they are falling in love. Their entire world, if only for one night, is a wonderland, and we are privileged to watch them explore it and interpret it and celebrate it in their bright, youthful way.

Before Sunset is just beginning to disappear from theaters now, to enter that limbo between theatrical and DVD releases. It is nine years later, and fate brings Jesse and Celine together again, this time in Paris. They are now thirtysomethings, not as idealistic, not as naive. Each has struggled to get their life on track; each has anguished over whether a golden opportunity was missed nine years before; each has those stars in their eyes that belie a hope that perhaps, just perhaps, it’s not yet too late to make something magical and lasting happen.

The word on the street (supported by the credits) is that Hawke and Delpy wrote most of the script, with input from Linklater. There’s not a moment of dialogue that seems forced or unnatural; you get the feeling that the actors have been haunted by these characters for the better part of a decade, and have been thinking all this time about what they might say to each other if given another chance. Some of what they say is beautiful; some of what they say is heartbreaking. All of what they say is riveting, as we experience, with them, the unique torture of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. You just don’t want to mess those up.

Both films engage us not only with Jesse and Celine, but with the cities they inhabit. Vienna and Paris are lovingly shot, often in tracking shots that last for many minutes as Jesse and Celine stroll along in a given direction. Before Sunset was filmed in fifteen days on the streets of Paris. You can imagine the two actors and a small crew heading out each day to wander Left Bank sidestreets, seeking just the right light, just the right crowd, just the right backdrop.

The end of the second film leaves open the possibility that we might be lucky enough to see a third episode someday, perhaps another nine years from now. But if we don’t, these two films stand on their own just fine, the first a happy and soulful remembrance of the bubbly, anything-can-happen exuberance of youth; the second a more sober portrait of Jesse and Celine as mature adults, struggling to make peace with the life choices they’ve made, but unafraid to test the waters to see what kind of waves they can still make. Way to be, you two. Way to be.