Movies about romantic obsession are seldom tender and intelligent. They tend to be arch or clinical or fixated on dubious psychology. Before Sunset, Richard Linklater’s follow-up to Before Sunrise, eschews coldness without ignoring emotional complexity. Sunset reunites Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine: the two haven’t met since their almost decade-old promise to meet again in six months, and this new film (which the actors co-wrote with Linklater) speaks solemnly of how life devours youth.
The delicacy of Sunset’s revelations makes the movie difficult to write about. This may be the first time I’ve seen obsession portrayed on-screen as natural rather than freakish. Of course, Jesse and Celine are mutually obsessed, but there’s also another layer of obsession—the one we bring to watching them. The years have lapsed for us, too, and I found it impossible not to read my own losses into Jesse’s and Celine’s. Damaged by romantic trickery, both have compared every subsequent lover to the memory of their one night together. And the interim—the lives they were fated to lead—hasn’t measured up.
There will be a few people going to Before Sunset expecting lies or some form of stale comfort. Those viewers will likely leave the film angry or will derisively dismiss it. Before Sunset in its own quiet way touches a nerve not often exposed by movies; I’m thinking of the moment when Jesse relates to Celine a dream he had about her during their long separation, and the confusion and pain he felt upon waking.
Something else, something major: Linklater, with this movie, filmed in Paris in hypnotic long takes, poaches on Truffaut territory, and the Austinite, simply by allowing his characters to breathe as living creations rather than pose as hollow neurotics, surpasses Truffaut. One of the reasons I hated Jules and Jim was because I could never have faith in Jeanne Moreau as Catherine. Nor could I believe that such a neuroses-riddled monster would sustain the affections of anyone.
Celine, as Julie Delpy inhabits her, is a woman—not a man’s fantasy of one. Whether Celine’s kidding around (“Parisians are so grumpy, have you noticed?”) or voicing her palpable hurt (“Even being alone is better than sitting next to a lover and feeling lonely”), Delpy erases the barrier of the screen; she accomplishes such an intimacy with the spectator in the dark that she could very well be sharing a café table with you. It’s a soft-spoken great performance, and Sunset belongs to her as surely as Sunrise belonged to Hawke’s Jesse. Later, Celine playfully serenades Jesse with her guitar, and this, too, Delpy brings off with resplendent grace.
I don’t mean to make Before Sunset sound dour; this is a lovely, sweet-natured film, easily one of the finest of 2004.
June 25, 2004