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Our philosophical film guru Thomas Wartenberg is charmed by Before Sunset but thinks it fumbles an opportunity to examine one of the genuine philosophical problems of growing older.
Going to the movies is, for most of us, an escape from real life. We want to experience a world that is really different from our daily lives, that has an excitement or charge that seems missing from our quotidian routines. Hence the appeal of superheroes, adventure films, even melodramas, for each in its own way heightens an aspect of our lives that seems dreary in the living of it but exciting when placed in high relief.
I was therefore surprised to find myself charmed by Richard Linklater’s recent film, Before Sunset, for the film seems very much a slice of life not all that different from that which most of us live. This is true not so much of the plot, but of the texture of what we witness on the screen. For the film consists of little more than an extended conversation between two ex-lovers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who are getting reacquainted after nine years. Despite being set in Paris, the romantic city plays a subordinate role to the intricacies of conversation that the two engage in.
Plotwise, the film has all the makings of a melodrama. Jesse and Celine first met in Linklater’s earlier film, Before Sunrise. A chance meeting on a train led to a one-night romance between the two in Vienna. Not wishing to sully the purity of their relationship with letters or phone calls filled with trite expressions of longing, the two decided simply to meet once again six months hence on the very spot of the separation. Now, nine-years later, we find out that an unfortunate circumstance kept them from their date – Celine’s grandmother’s funeral was on the very day the two were to meet. As she says, she wasn’t sure whether the tears she shed on that day were for her dead grandmother or for the fact that she would never see Jesse again. Although the two have gone on with their lives, the film slowly builds as each reveals how that one night has remained a central touchstone in their lives. As they get reacquainted, we wonder whether they will find each other or part once again.
The elements of this plot are essentially the same as those of Leo McCarey’s 1957 heartbreaker, An Affair to Remember. The crucial difference is that it was a car accident that kept Deborah Kerr from meeting Cary Grant atop the Empire State Building. What’s interesting is that Before Sunset manages to downplay the melodramatic aspects of this plot while emphasizing the ways in which the lives of the two lovers remain tied to that one night.
In part, this is achieved through the brilliant device of having the film take place in real time. What we see on the screen is an 80-minute interaction between Jesse and Celine that actually takes place over 80 minutes. Although Linklater eschews the theatrics of the single-shot film used in Time Code and Russian Ark, he takes from these films the idea of staging a film in real time, that is, having the events of the narrative develop in the actual time the film is shown. This results in our experiencing the film as more realistic than those films in which time is telescoped through editing. Most films are around two hours in length but tell stories that take place over a much longer period of time. Editing allows the filmmaker to telescope the time of the story so that we don’t have to spend as long in the theater as the time the actual plot took. Only the occasional experimental film, such as Andy Warhol’s Sleep, created an identity between the time required for the film’s showing and the temporal extent of the events depicted. Linklater’s film is remarkable in its use of this technical possibility for film in a way that results in increased expressive possibilities.
In the 1950’s, André Bazin argued somewhat problematically that realism as a film style realized an inherent characteristic of the medium, its ability to present us with the very objects themselves. In order for this to happen, he claimed, editing had to be downplayed in favor of long takes that enabled the film’s action to develop in a way that appeared natural to the audience. Linklater’s film shows that there is another route to realism, one that depends on making film time and viewing time the same. Instead of relying on editing in order to bridge temporal gaps in the film’s narrating of events, Linklater creates a story that can be presented so as to negate the difference between the duration of the events that make up the plot and the amount of time which it takes for the audience to watch them.
At the beginning of the film, Linklater does include a few flashbacks to the first film as a way of establishing the context for this sequel. But these intrude only occasionally later on and, when they do, signify a memory that one of the characters is having. They don’t interrupt the continuity of the flow of the film’s duration. The result, as I have said, is to make us feel like we are right there, witnessing the conversation between these two people.
This technical achievement results in a film that is remarkably enjoyable to watch. We are fascinated as we watch these two converse with each other. What I particularly liked was the way in which the film depicted these two becoming reacquainted with one another, how they slowly drew back layer after layer of defense until they finally revealed the truth of their existence to each other. At first, each presents a face to the other intended to show that they are doing all right. Slowly, as they become more comfortable with each other and begin to re-experience the connection that they once had, they are willing to reveal the pain they are feeling in their early thirties, as their lives are no longer constituted as apparently unlimited potentials. Now, each sees themself as constrained by the choices they have made, as if getting older means no longer having the chance to realize one’s potential through their free choices.
So despite his outward success – best-selling author, married, young child – Jesse feels he is only living out a series of commitments he has made without there being genuine connection to their source. Celine, on the other hand, complains that all her lovers have left her only to get married and to thank her for enabling them to make that commitment. The committed environmental activist is barren of an emotional life that she finds fulfilling. The disenchantment the two feel with their lives opens up the possibility of their rekindling their romance, and we are intrigued to see whether this will take place.
The romanticism of An Affair to Remember thus still affects this film, though not, as I say, in the register of melodrama. It turns out that each of the lovers has remained faithful to their one night of bliss despite living out lives that appear on the surface to have progressed. Despite their commitments and successes, each feels that their life is hollow because it fails to live up to the potential of that one special night.
I don’t doubt that many people hold onto the illusion that there was a moment that was lost, a person that got away, and, but for that, their lives would have been radically different. But it’s a disappointment to see the film accept this idea so uncritically, to suggest that these two will find fulfillment by rekindling their relationship. It’s not that this couldn’t happen but that it negates the film’s more interesting presentation of the process of aging as fraught with emotional difficulty. How do we cope with lives whose very successes rule out other possibilities we once may have yearned to try and which memory keeps alive for us as if they were still there? Instead of seeing this as a real problem, the film takes refuge in the romantic idea that the difficulties of accepting life can be overcome by these two if they just get back together. Had the film instead tried to investigate why they needed to look back to their magical night as a way of coping with the disappointments of living, it would have achieved at the level of plot the same success it did formally.
Still, this is a film that stands out from the pack. By eschewing the path of easy thrills, it opens up a new possibility for achieving realism in film. It’s worth seeing and thinking about.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2004
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.