Several months ago, I stumbled upon the film Before Sunset (2004) on TV. Although I normally have no interest in this type of romantic drama, I was aware that Richard Linklater’s duology Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset had developed a cult following and had garnered high critical acclaim. So, I watched about half an hour of the film, which seemed to be playing out in real time. I found myself drawn into the conversation between the two characters Jesse and Celine, as they spoke about their lives, feelings and opinions, just as any two close friends would if they were meeting after many years. It was a rare and wonderful thing to see that kind of realism play out on screen. Although I couldn’t stay through the entire film, I resolved to watch both films in sequence one day.
In April, I watched Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles and thoroughly enjoyed it. At that time, I read that he was about to release a 3rd film in the ‘Before’ series, titled Before Midnight during the summer. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and over the past several weeks has accumulated a torrent of positive reviews. It is among the highest rated films on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes this year. Naturally, I remembered my earlier promise to myself and so I finished watching both the films today.
I loved both of them. As I had sensed during my earlier half hour viewing of the 2nd film, the casting and chemistry of the two actors -Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – is what makes the films so appealing. They have clearly infused a bit of themselves into the characters and in fact, both actors co-scripted the second film Before Sunset with Richard Linklater and went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The first film is the more straight-forward and lightweight of the two – a young American man chats up a French girl on a train headed for Paris via Vienna. After spending a few hours talking in the dining car, he convinces her to get off with him at Vienna, where he has to catch an early morning flight back to the US the next day. She agrees after some hesitation and the rest of the film shows them exploring the city while getting to know each other. Over the course of the evening, it becomes clear that they are attracted to each other, not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally. It is very easy for the viewer to empathize with the earnestness of their love as well as the rapidly forming undercurrent of tension as their time together comes to an end. The film ends with them parting at the railway station with a daring decision not to exchange contact details, but instead a promise to meet each other again 6 months later at the same place. Whether they do or not was essentially left to the imagination of the viewer, depending on the viewer’s own leanings towards romanticism or cynicism.
In fact, this is exactly what Ethan Hawke’s character Jesse Wallace says at the start of the 2nd film when he is at a bookstore in Paris promoting his book which is essentially a fictitious rendering of the events of that night. At the end of the session, he realizes that Julie Delpy’s character Celine is standing off to one side. It soon becomes clear that they were unable to keep their appointment 9 years earlier. Jesse has a few hours before he has to rush off to the airport, so the two of them walk through the streets of Paris, trying to catch up on their life events since that night in Vienna. With both characters older and more worldly-wise, their conversation has a much greater emotional depth to it than in the first film. Both are in relationships, but it seems that they are more free and playful with each other than they probably are with their respective partners. As Jesse’s departure to the airport draws closer, there is once again an undercurrent of tension, this time due to their feelings of loss and regret from the unanswerable question of what might have happened, had they not missed that appointment at the Vienna station. This film also has an open-ended conclusion, once again leaving cynics and romantics to create their own closure. Somehow, given the current circumstances of both the characters, one can only imagine that the future will probably be complicated, whichever path they choose.
As the credits started rolling, I felt a deep poignancy that Jesse and Celine could never return to the simple pleasures of that first meeting in Vienna. While the first film ended on a hopeful upbeat note, I felt so uncertain about the fate of these 2 soul mates at the end of the 2nd one. Would they go back to their respective lives and continue to yearn for each other? Or would they break up their respective loveless relationships and get together? Even if they did so, what would be the chances of their relationship becoming a success? After all, they had only spent a total of about 24 hours together over a span of 9 years. So many unanswered questions. I wonder how many will get resolved and how many new uncertainties will get thrown up in Before Midnight…