Little space in between: preliminary notes on Before Sunrise
Love’s Moment: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset
Little space in between: preliminary notes on Before Sunrise
Author: Robin Wood
Date: Jan 1, 1996
"...You know, if there's any kind of god, it wouldn't be in any of us, not you, or me, but just...this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it's almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really?
The answer must be in the attempt..."
-- Julie Delpy in Before SunriseI knew, the first time I saw Before Sunrise, that here was a film for which I felt not only interest or admiration but love; a film I would want to revisit repeatedly over the years; one that would join the short list of films that remain constant favourites; and one that I would ultimately want to write about, as a means at once of exploring it more systematically and of sharing my delight in it with others--of finding that "magic" in the "attempt". I believe in the possibility of a `definitive' reading of a work only in the sense that it is definitive for myself at a certain stage of my evolution, that it `defines' not the work but my own temporary sense of it, the degree of contact I have been able to achieve, as clearly and completely as I can; but I do not feel ready, with Before Sunrise, for even that limited and provisional undertaking. What follows, then, should be read as a series of loosely interconnected and often tentative probes, the beginning of a `work in progress': a preliminary attempt to define why, for me personally, this film belongs among the dozen or so that exemplify `cinema' at its finest.
`Style' is a necessary word whose meaning we all think we understand until we try to give it a precise definition; indeed, like many necessary words, it may be useful only so long as its meaning remains somewhat vague. If we restrict it to camera-style we can handle it fairly confidently, talking about long-shots or close-ups, static or moving camera, high angle or low angle, long takes or rapid editing. Yet this is never sufficient, and such an analysis, however meticulous, may become actually misleading, as well as a way of privileging some styles of filmmaking over others. It might, for example, lead one to the conclusion that the films of Leo McCarey had no style at all, or at best a style lacking all distinctiveness and distinction, whereas its great distinctiveness (McCarey at his best is always instantly recognizable) arises not from the use of the camera but from the relationship between the director and his actors. With Linklater one can indicate certain specific stylistic preferences--the fondness, for example, for long takes, both with and without camera-movement--but this will not take one very far in defining the feel of the films, one's experience in watching them, to which `style' is obviously crucial. In this wider sense (ultimately the only valid one), style will always elude precise definition. Nor is the old style/content dichotomy very helpful. It works only if one reduces `content' to something like a plot synopsis or the `action' as one might narrate it to a friend: the `content' of a film is images and sounds, and the specific nature of those images and sounds is `style'. To talk of the two as somehow distinct and separable is impossible, and the moment one begins to talk about `style' as something with an autonomous existence one also begins to misrepresent the film. This is true even of the work of directors who developed an instantly recognizable visual style, who are commonly seen as `great stylists'. To take two obvious extremes (both of whom might, I think, have had an indirect influence on Before Sunrise), the visual styles of Ozu and Ophuls are inextricably a part of the meaning of their films; and--unless, again, we define `content' as plot synopsis--the content of a film is its total meaning, which can never be finally fixed (it will change subtly for each generation, as cultural change brings new perceptions). This is not to assert that style must `express' content in the sense familiar from traditional aesthetics. It would be more accurate to say that style is the artist's means of defining the relationship of the spectator to the film. Aside from the `realist' (i.e. illusionist) styles of most mainstream cinema (and those already embrace a very wide range of possibilities), there are the `Brechtian' styles (another wide range, as the term has been applied to everything from Sirk to Godard) and the various styles of melodrama. But they too are inextricable components of a film's meaning, its content in the wider sense.
LEVELS OF MEANING
A. The cover of the laserdisc of Before Sunrise gives (somewhat unusually) fascinating and useful information about the film's conception and creation. One can distinguish various stages in its progress from idea to realization.
i. Richard Linklater, in New York for a work-in-progress screening of Slacker, decides to visit relatives in Philadelphia; he meets a woman in a toy store, and they spend the night wandering the streets, talking.
ii. Some years later (after completing Slacker and shooting Dazed and Confused) he sees this experience as the possible basis for a film.
iii. Feeling the need of a woman's input ("I didn't want the woman in the film to be a projection of myself"), he enlists Kim Krizan (whom he had met when she auditioned for Slacker) as fellow screenwriter; together they compose scenes in which he provides the man's dialogue, she the woman's, but with some interchange (he wrote some of `her' dialogue, she some of `his').
iv. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are cast as the two leads, and there follows a series of consultations in which they also contribute ideas, often drawing on personal experience (Hawke: "It was like mutual group therapy, a great way to begin"; and Linklater: "The fake phone call scene came from something Julie did with her girlfriends as a teenager...I thought it was brilliant, so we just worked out the scene from there...")
v. Filming begins, but the screenplay still leaves space for interpretation, improvisation, accident (e.g., the two actors in the `play about a cow' really were two actors in a play about a cow... Hawke: "There were a lot of scenes like that.")
The laserdisc cover fails to maintain this level of interest and intelligence to the end (quoting Glamour Magazine, informing us that Before Sunrise is "The most winning romance since Four Weddings and a Funeral," and apparently not grasping that this is an insult). But such first-hand documentation of a film's creation is all too rare; so often, we critics have to rely on interviews with directors discussing films they made ten or twenty years earlier, memories of which are inevitably partial, and coloured by distance, bias and exaggeration. Just one crucial step is missing: Why Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy? How were they cast? Were other actors considered, approached, rejected? I ask because, given the result, it is absolutely impossible to imagine the film without Hawke and Delpy (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman? Or, really to scrape the bottom of the barrel, Rob Lowe and Demi Moore?). It is clear, not merely from the account of its making but from the result, that Hawke and Delpy made themselves integral to the collaborative creative act: Have any two actors ever given themselves more completely, more generously, more nakedly, to a film? The usual distinction between `being' and `acting' is totally collapsed. Before Sunrise is both, and indissolubly, `a Richard Linklater Film' (no one else could have made it) and a densely collaborative one. It would be an ideal subject for one of those `Special Edition' laserdiscs where, on an alternative audio track, the filmmakers and actors give a running commentary on the film as we watch; one hopes that some enterprising executive will organize this before the film recedes too far into the past.
This gives us three levels of reading: Is this a film about Jesse and Celine (characters), Hawke and Delpy (actors) or Linklater and Krizan (filmmakers)? The levels are there, but they merge into each other to the extent of being ultimately undistinguishable from one another. The `style' (and also the meaning) of the film is not merely Linklater's decisions as to where to place and when to move the camera; it is also Hawke's precise gestures, Delpy's precise expressions, their intimate interaction: hence ultimately unanalysable on paper.
B. Although it is not very useful, it seems necessary to say that the `meaning' of a great film is ultimately itself: the movement from shot to shot, the precise sequence of sounds and images. Victor Perkins has demonstrated that the `meaning' of The Wizard of Oz is not reducible to "There is no place like home"; on a higher level of achievement, one must not reduce Tokyo Story to "Life is disappointing, isn't it?", or that favourite refuge of western critics mono no aware, and "For me, life is movement" does not sum up Lola Montes, let alone Ophuls in toto. Such explicit statements have their place in the fabric of a film's total meaning, but only as a contributing factor within a context that may qualify or even contradict them. I shall not, therefore, attempt to find a phrase to sum up the meaning of Before Sunrise, but I shall venture to suggest that its meaning develops simultaneously on three continuously interactive levels:
i. Personal: the detailed description of a highly specific relationship between two complexly characterized individuals.
ii. Social: the exploration of contemporary (post-60s/70s feminism) attitudes to love, relationships and romanticism.
iii. Metaphysical: the pervasive preoccupation with death, time and transience, chance and arbitrariness, a world without any sense of certitude or confidence in the future.
AFTER THE END
We know of course (having been told so many times) that characters in a fiction have no existence beyond it, and it is therefore improper to speculate about their lives outside it. But Before Sunrise seems to defy such a prohibition: everyone with whom I have watched it immediately raises the question of whether or not Jesse and Celine will keep their six-months-ahead date. The general consensus is that they probably won't, a conclusion one might find supported by both the melancholy andante of Bach's first viola da gamba sonata that accompanies the penultimate sequence, and the song that accompanies the end credits, with its refrain "Hold me like a lover should/Although tomorrow don't look so good", and its celebration of "living light": there are simply too many of those mundane obstacles, too many highly unromantic practical questions (about money, work, travel, distance, where to live...) that seem trivial `before sunrise' but will begin to loom very large after it, as time passes. (So far I have found only one dissenter, but a very intelligent one: Lori Spring, filmmaker, teacher of screenwriting and member of the original CineAction collective, who told me that she never had the least doubt that the date would be kept). That the six-months date inevitably evokes An Affair to Remember doesn't really help, beyond reminding us that `happy endings' are no longer as generically guaranteed as they used to be. But the verdict is always reached with great reluctance, testifying to the continuing pull, despite all the battering it has received, of the romantic ideal as a powerful and seductive component of our ideology of love and sexuality. I think this response--the `realistic' acknowledgement of uncertainty, precariousness, the transience of feelings, the recognition that amor doesn't always vincit omnia, qualified by a `romantic' yearning for commitment, stability, permanence--corresponds very closely to the film's overall tone or `feel', accounting for the resonance it has for contemporary audiences (with more confident marketing, it could have been a runaway `hit').
There is a third alternative: that one will and the other won't. My initial reaction was that, if that were the case, the one who did would be Jesse. I though this might be the product of some lingering trace of sexist prejudice--the `fickleness' of women and all that--but its tenability was subsequently confirmed by one of my female students, who came up, quite unprompted, with the same conclusion and offered the same justification: that he is the more `romantic', she the more `realistic'. And indeed, if such idle speculation has any interest, it resides in the possibility that it throws some light on the film's `personal' level, the level of individual character. I found myself commenting earlier on Ethan Hawke's gestures and Julie Delpy's expressions. Obviously, the distinction isn't absolute; but Jesse habitually acts things out, as if constantly anxious to convey what he means--or thinks he means, or wants to mean--he can't simply `be' sincere but must continually demonstrate his sincerity. Of the two characters he seems the more insecure, the more vulnerable, the less mature. Celine--more educated, more aware, more intellectual, though not necessarily more intelligent--is far more at ease with herself, more stable, hence less demonstrative. There is no absolute opposition: the more times one sees the film the more complex the characters appear, both revealing certain basic uncertainties, anxieties about life and death, and by the end of the film she has shown a vulnerability that corresponds to his. But the initial impression, though much less confident, lingers. The intensity with which she clings to him in their final embrace before she boards her train, the expression of near-desperation on her face which he can't see but we can, suggest both that initially she will be the one who suffers the more and that she already has no real hope of a future with him; her intellectual awareness will help her to cope. One imagines him, back in America, obsessively developing (and insulating himself within) a romantic fantasy which he half knows to be unrealistic, while she continues to meet people, look outside herself, form other relations. (On the other hand he has his buddies, not to mention his dog!). And if he is at the station on the appointed date, a part of him will even take a certain masochistic satisfaction in his disappointment; she, meanwhile, will be smiling quietly to herself at the memory of a magical night, with pleasure, tenderness and a passing regret, and will wonder where he is and what has happened to him before going on with her own life.
I have changed my mind many times as to whether to include the above conjectures or cut them, partly because I am uncertain as to whether they have any critical validity, partly because every time I see the film I become less confident of their validity even as interpretation. If I finally decide to leave them, it will be because the very fact that I surrender to such temptations indicates something very specific and very important about the way the film works. It is characterized by a complete openness within a closed and perfect classical form (an unquestioned diegetic world, the unities preserved, the end symmetrically answering the beginning). The relationship shifts and fluctuates, every viewing revealing new aspects, further nuances, like turning a kaleidoscope, so the meaning shifts and fluctuates also. No two individuals will respond in quite the same way, or in the same different ways on a second, third or fourth viewing. Ethan Hawke's reference to `group therapy' has implications far beyond the first stages of discussion among filmmakers and actors, it extends to the audience, involves each individual spectator in a complex dialogue: Do you feel this, do you agree with that, how exactly does this affect you, your attitude to life, your ideas about relationships, the relationship you are in, the relationship you want; or do you really want a relationship at all? The questions the film raises are never answered, the uncertainties it expresses are never closed off. But in any case, the tug of the longing for permanence is so powerful that one would love to see a sequel (Celine and Jesse Go Boating perhaps) in which they did keep the appointment, returned together to...France? America?... and tried to work out ways in which `commitment' is still feasible.
However, the question of Will they or won't they? may be a simple (and sentimental) evasion of the real question posed by the film's ending, which is far more radical and disturbing: Would it be better if they did or if they didn't?
POINTS OF REFERENCE
Through its intimate and detailed treatment of its central couple, the film explores the possibility of `meaningful' or `successful' relationships today (in the aftermath of 60s/70s feminism, with its profound effect on male/female relations which the 80s/90s backlash has been unable to eradicate): a possibility at once longed for and called into question. The film provides three reference points or touchstones, constructing a backdrop against which the problematic of contemporary relating can stand illuminated. One is dramatized within the fiction, the other two are extra-diegetic.
THE QUARRELING GERMAN COUPLE ON THE TRAIN
I take it that, like Celine and Jesse, we are not expected to understand what the argument is about (money is mentioned), but we get the impression that the mutual and bitter animosity is habitual, perhaps that it is one of those petty squabbles that often substitute for discussions of the real marital tensions that cannot be spoken. The couple are directly linked to Celine and Jesse, as the fight is inadvertently responsible for their first meeting: Celine changes her seat to get further away from their noise (she is trying to read), taking a seat across the aisle from Jesse; she and Jesse first make eye contact as the couple stride angrily past them down the aisle, and exchange deprecating smiles to acknowledge their shared awareness; they first make verbal contact when he asks her if she "has any idea what they were arguing about"; and their relationship may be said properly to begin with Celine's "Have you heard that as couples get older, they lose their ability to hear each other?". We are also shown, in a brief single shot, an elderly couple, silent, who perhaps have reached a stage of resignation and stagnation beyond bitchy arguments and who might be taken as representing what the fighting couple will become if they remain together. This is the immediate context within which the beginning of a new attempt at relating is placed; a marvellously succinct and unobtrusive statement of the film's thematic starting-point.
DIDO AND AENEAS, LISA AND STEFAN
The overture to Purcell's mini-opera accompanies the opening credits, the tragedy-laden introduction over the white-on-black main titles, the allegro neatly synchronized with the first images, shot from the rapidly moving train, its final chord coinciding with the appearance of the director's credit. And, for any filmlover in the audience, the Viennese setting, the visit to the Prater, the complex examination (however different in spirit and conclusion) of romantic love, cannot fail to evoke Letter from an Unknown Woman. Both these reference points view romantic love as variously doomed and tragic, and in both the woman is at once the emotional centre/identification-figure and the prime sufferer, but there the parallel ends: the Queen of Carthage, abandoned by Aeneas, dying apparently of a broken heart (though possibly, following tradition and anticipating Berlioz, she commits suicide, the stage direction offering only the sparse and enigmatic "Dies"); the woman who has grown up, starved of power and the experience of beauty, in a petit bourgeois milieu in late nineteenth century Vienna, and wastes her life in selfless (or selfish?) commitment to the potentially great concert pianist whose life is wasted already, in the impossible quest for vicarious fulfilment. These were surely intended (and if they weren't they should have been) as indicators of past attitudes to romantic love, and as such they cover, altogether, a remarkable time-span: Virgil, Troy, Carthage and `Italy' (to found which is Aeneas' divinely ordained destiny and his reason or pretext for abandoning Dido); Purcell's late seventeenth century England; `Vienna, about 1990'; Hollywood, about 1947; and Vienna, 1995. [This is the first time a Linklater movie has evoked a past more distant than that of his `horror' film Dazed and Confused, and these are not the only references to it. There is the pervasive presence of Vienna, its architecture, its history; Celine's mini-lecture on Seurat ("I love the way the people seem to be dissolving into the background", a description that might apply, less literally, to Before Sunrise, with its consistent concern with time and place and its repeated reminders of other human lives being lived--the actors, the fortuneteller, the poet, the people in the restaurant), and the film's most purely magical moment where the couple, at dawn, on their way for Celine to catch her train and, they believe, about to say their last farewell, become suddenly aware of the sound of a harpsichord emerging from a basement apartment, where a very early riser is playing Bach's `Goldberg' variations].
It is these reference points that imply the question I raised, implying (one might say) a signpost to an unknown destination. If a relationship must lead either to the tragic waste and desolation offered by past concepts of romantic love or to the stagnation and bitterness into which so many contemporary marriages seem to degenerate, would it not be better if Jesse and Celine were left at least with indelible memories of one magical night? The film's challenge is to define the unknown destination: if we want them to form a relationship (as surely we do), then it must be of a quite different order from anything offered by the familiar models. This is surely why the outcome becomes so important to us: not although but because it is so concretely realized and particularized--and certainly because the film convinces us so thoroughly of its potential value--it raises very acutely and precisely the fundamental questions for every spectator today: how do we relate?--how should we relate?--how might we relate?
In this context, comparison with Letter from an Unknown Woman seems especially suggestive, the films' extreme stylistic differences corresponding to an equally extreme difference in the depiction of romantic love. Both directors are obviously fond of long takes, but of a diametrically opposed nature: Ophuls' long-takes-with-camera-movement are obviously choreographed trajectories guiding the characters from here to here, suggesting some form of predestination or entrapment (whether we interpret it in metaphysical or social terms seems a matter of personal bias, as both can find support within the film). Linklater's--typically with a static camera, or with movement that is clearly determined by the movement of the actors rather than vice versa--leave the actors free, permitting spontaneity. That romantic love in Ophuls is viewed as inevitably tragic is always traceable to the subordinate position of women (with whom he plainly identifies) in patriarchal culture: in Letter, romantic fantasy is Lisa's only escape-route from the ignominy and constriction of her social position. The lovers of Before Sunrise, on the contrary, meet and negotiate on a level of equality: it is difficult to see that Jesse enjoys privileges that are closed to Celine.
That the film, however one reads the ending, always seems so inspirational and life-giving is surely because, within a cultural situation that often seems incorrigibly and fathomlessly discouraging, it reminds us that there have been advances, and important ones, however minor they may appear amid the current right-wing devastation.
A NOTE ON THE METAPHYSICAL LEVEL
It may at first seem paradoxical (but is in fact absolutely logical) that a film so committed to life should be so pervaded by references to death. Death is, after all, the supreme test of one's sense of meaning. The couple's intimacy begins to blossom under death's shadow, when (in the lounge car of the train) Jesse describes his childhood experience of seeing his great-grandmother, just deceased, in the rainbow formed in the spray of a garden sprinkler, concludes by deciding that "death is just as ambiguous as everything else", and Celine confides that she is afraid of death twenty-four hours in every day. Throughout the film, references to death counterpoint the continuous awareness of the passing of time (the few hours before they have to separate, the past centuries the film evokes). Jesse's sudden recognition, at dawn, that they are "back in real time" is immediately juxtaposed with their awareness of the sound of the harpsichord, and shortly followed by his imitation of Dylan Thomas's recording of an Auden poem about the impossibility of evading the passing of time, which leads in turn to their abrupt and frantic decision to meet again, just as Celine's train is about to leave. These intimations of mortality confer upon the relationship--however it is resolved--its beauty and importance.
Like `style', identification is a necessary word whose usefulness diminishes in direct ratio to the rigidity of its definition; when it is reduced to counting POV shots (or simply to `the male gaze') the usefulness is somewhere around point zero. I have tried to address at some length the complex possibilities of identification (degrees of sympathy, `split' identification, conflicts of identification at different levels simultaneously, etc.) in the Ingrid Bergman chapter of Hitchock's Films Revisited, and shall not repeat the full argument here (it has not, so far as I know, been refuted, just ignored, as is usually the case with arguments the current critical hegemoney finds inconvenient). It will suffice to say that I use the term to cover the entire spectrum, from our sharing the experience of the entire action with a single character (who would have to be the audience's magnet of sympathy and present in every scene, a possibility that remains in the realm of the hypothetical), to the flickering and fleeting play of sympathetic attaction shifting from character to character. With the former extreme one thinks of Hitchcock, but in his films such `total' identification is invariably either brutally shattered or subtly undermined: by the abrupt demise of our identification-figure (Psycho), by his sudden withdrawal from a crucial scene that reveals what he doesn't yet know (Vertigo), or by the systematic erosion of confidence in the acceptability of his behaviour (Rear Window). The latter extreme is also uncommon, but Renoir is its most obvious practitioner in, for example, La Grande Illusion and La Regle du Jeu. (1)
From first scene to last, Before Sunrise systematically and rigorously resists encouraging identification with one character above or against the other (and it's difficult to think of any other film that achieves quite this feat). Do men automatically identify with the male, women with the female? I doubt it, although our gender may of course entail a certain bias which the film goes out of its way to undermine: some men, some women, perhaps, but only those so fanatically devoted to the rights of their own sex that they are insensitive to the film's `style', the structure of its shots and its scenario, the marvellously achieved equality of its two central performances.
WATCHING AND LISTENING
When we talk casually of `reading' a film, most of us usually mean reading between the lines or below the surface, in order to extricate and explicate its `meaning', or at least its thematic complex. One does this, of course, with Before Sunrise, but the film demands more, a `reading' in a more literal sense: we must watch and listen simultaneously, with the most careful attention to every gesture, expression and word, because `meaning', here, refuses reduction to `theme'.
I have to confess, at this point, to a failure: even on first viewing I told myself that I would `one day' analyze in detail the scene in the listening booth of the record store, in which nothing happens except that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy either do or don't look at each other, their eyes never quite meeting. After a dozen viewings I abandoned the project. I suppose one might try an elaborate system of charts and timings, annotating `direction of the gaze', when and how long each looks (or doesn't)...which would demonstrate nothing of the least importance. With no camera-movement, no editing, no movement within the frame except for the slight movements of the actors' heads, nothing on the soundtrack but a not-very-distinguished song that may vaguely suggest what is going on in the characters' minds and seems sometimes to motivate their `looks' ("Though I'm not impossible to touch/I have never wanted you so much/Come here"), the shot seems to me a model of `pure cinema' in ways Hitchcock never dreamed of (not merely `photographs of people talking', but photographs of them not talking), precisely because it completely resists analysis, defies verbal description. All one can say is that it is the cinema's most perfect depiction, in just over one minute of `real' time, at once concrete and intangible, of two people beginning to realize that they are falling in love.
I shall content myself, then, with two scenes that, without at all lacking the essentials of `pure cinema', the obligation of the spectator to watch and listen, offer themselves for some kind of clumsy verbalizing: the `Question and Answer' game on the streetcar, the imaginary telephone conversations in the restaurant. The scenes `answer' each other (within this meticulously structured film which manages to look as if it was `made up as they went along') in a complex pattern of similarity and difference: both are games, played by the two characters as a means toward mutual understanding through play, occurring at different stages in the relationship's development, the first essentially a mapping-out of differences, the second a means of discovering each other's feelings and confessing their own, implicitly with a view to a possible future ("Are you going to see him again?"/"I don't know. We haven't talked about that yet"--followed by a silence); Jesse initiates, and partly controls, the first game, Celine the second. And the scenes are paired formally by a strict stylistic opposition: the film's longest single take (just over five minutes) answered by its most heavily edited sequence (forty-three shots in just over five minutes).
Q & A
The interplay of gesture and expression throughout the long uninterrupted two-shot is so dense and intricate that one really needs to watch it three times (as one can do without difficulty on the laserdisc as it is contained within a single `chapter'): once watching Hawke, a second time watching Delpy, a third time trying to `see' them both together. Otherwise, one's eyes dart constantly from one side of the frame to the other and one misses many of the nuances.
Gesture and expression are of course meaningless unless one is listening simultaneously and with equal attention to the dialogue, which defines certain important differences that in turn contribute to defining `this little space in between'. Celine describes her `first sexual feelings' in terms of a romantic crush on a famous swimmer she actually met, Jesse his (after evading her real question, "Have you ever been in love?"--we learn later that he came to Europe to meet a woman and they have just broken up) in relation to `Miss July, 1978', in Playboy. The answers to, respectively, Jesse's "What pisses you off?" and Celine's "What's your problem?" are even more revealing. Her answers show a wide-ranging and enquiring (if embryonic) awareness of practical realities: social ("I hate being told by strange men in the street to smile, to make them feel better about their boring lives"); political (a war going on "300 kilometres from here" and "nobody knows what to do or gives a shit"); socio-political (the media are "trying to control minds" and "...it's very subtle but it's a new from of fascism realy"); sexual-political ("I hate being told, especially in America, `Oh, you're so French, you're so cute', each time I wear black, or lose my temper, or say anything about anything"). His answer, on the other hand, while it also reveals an enquiring, thinking mind, is more abstract, philosophical-metaphysical: he speaks of reincarnation and eternal souls, and the ensuing conundrum of the increase in world population: "50,000 years ago not even one million, 10,000 years ago two million. Now five to six billion. Where do the souls all come from--a 5,000-to-one split. So is this why we're so scattered, so specialized?" (While marginally more rational--if one accepts its premise--this recalls Linklater's own hilarious monologue in the taxi at the beginning of Slacker).
THE IMAGINARY PHONE CALLS
The forty-three shot sequence perfectly exemplifies that fundamental principle of western (and other?) art, almost (but not quite) perfect symmetry. It is introduced, punctuated around the midpoint, and closed, by three identical two-shots of the couple opposite each other at the restaurant table; Celine's imaginary call has twenty-eight shots, filmed in strict shot/reverse-shot form; Jesse's has twenty-two, filmed similarly. To clarify:
Shot 1: Two-shot: the couple
Shots 2-29: Shot/reverse-shot (Celine's call)
Shot 30: Two-shot: the couple
Shots 31-42: Shot/reverse-shot (Jesse's call)
Shot 43: Two-shot: the couple
The restaurant scene follows the scene in the street at night that concludes with Celine's speech quoted at the head of this article, the last words provoking a lengthy silence and a cut to long-shot as they continue sitting on the bench; it is introduced (before the imaginary phone calls) by a series of shots of other customes: a mixed group at one table, two men playing cards, two bearded men conversing, a woman alone reading a book, an American couple (the man grumbling about the service), two men and one woman, laughing at a joke...other lives, other relationships, other problems. Celine's speech, and the other customers, create a context (both of lives and of ideas) for the couple's exploration (through the game) of each other's feelings and expectations, testing the possibility of a continuing relationship. I feel disinclined to dissect this wonderful sequence in detail. I would describe it as one of the film's high points, were it not for the fact that it doesn't have any low ones. The use of play as a medium for revealing truths and emotions that one can't quite dare speak `seriously' is touching in itself, in its implications of vulnerability, the desire to speak out inhibited by the fear of being hurt, the suspension at the end--Jesse's question (in the role of Celine's confidante) "Are you going to see him again?" remains unanswered--anticipating the similar suspension in which the spectator is left at the end of the film.
Perhaps the film's moment of greatest tenderness occurs after the lovers have separated: the sequence of shots (accompanied on the soundtrack by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach) re-viewing the places they visited as the new day begins, some with the first stirrings of activity, some still deserted, an old woman glancing disapprovingly at the empty wine bottle they discarded in the park where they made love. The sequence evokes the ending of Antonioni's L'Eclisse, but without its sense of desolation and finality: rather, the feeling is of sadness and happiness inextricably intermingled, regret for the separation and the uncertainty but a deep satisfaction in the degree of mutual understanding and intimacy two human beings have achieved in a few hours, how nearly successful the attempt to bridge "this little space in between". And, as Celine says, the "answer", the "magic", must be in the attempt. The same might be said of the critic's relationship to the films s/he loves.
(1) There may be a direct connection between Renoir and Linklater--there is certainly common ground, in the emotional generosity, the range of sympathy, the attitude that manages the difficult feat of being critical without being judgemental. I think particularly of Slacke. Renoir once said that the film he's always wanted to make but could never set up was one in which we would follow one set of characters for a little while, then others would walk by or appear in the background and we would leave the first set and follow the newcomers, who would shortly give way to yet others, and so on throughout the film. Slacker may be Linklater's realization (though very much on his own terms) of the film Renoir never made.
COPYRIGHT 1996 CineAction
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.
Cinemascope – Independent Film Journal
Issue 4 January‐April 2006
Love’s Moment: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset
I did not much like Richard Linkater’s Before Sunrise (1995) when I first saw it, at the moment of its international release. I don’t remember what mood I was in then – it must have been a rather sour and shut-down state – but how could I have so comprehensively missed the joys of this movie?
How could I have missed the perfect, delicate structure of the film’s progression of events (within the wonderfully developed arc of a single day-night-morning), or its touchingly observed mise en scène of growing private and interpersonal emotions struggling to express themselves within the confines of various public spaces? How could I have judged it as an artless, talk-heavy ‘indie’ American film, tainted by a comparison with the likes of Kevin Smith and Whit Stillman? How could I have concluded that there are “no epiphanies in this gab-fest, only a few nice, brittle jokes”? How could I have written that “the chat that goes on between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke hits a superficial groove very early on, and keeps raking over the same topics: the difference between men and women, idealism versus pragmatism, the aimless disenchantment of contemporary youth” – without sensing how intimately tied to the inner lives of the characters these chats are?
And how could I have figured for a single moment that Before Sunrise “repeats the sin of much contemporary romantic comedy: it just doesn't succeed in making the woman's part a real, equal, reciprocal match for the man's”? Robin Wood had a much clearer vision of this aspect in his important essay “The Little Space in Between: Preliminary Notes on Before Sunrise” (Cineaction no. 47, October 1996): “From first scene to last, Before Sunrise systematically and rigorously resists encouraging identification with one character above or against the other”.
Stumbling upon Before Sunrise one day on afternoon television in 2003 – during its long-take tramcar scene – I was stunned by the detailed beauty of Before Sunrise, by its sense of space and place and incident, not to mention the unimpeachable loveableness of its two leading players, both as fictional characters and pure screen ‘presences’. Watching it all again (several times) since on DVD, I am now convinced that Before Sunrise is among the great films of the ‘90s, and, alongside The School of Rock (2003) certainly Linklater’s best. Then along came Before Sunset (2004) … but more on that later.
In 1995, Before Sunrise landed in the midst of an often dispiriting American romantic comedy revival – Only You (Norman Jewison, 1994), Miami Rhapsody (David Frankel, 1995), I.Q. (Fred Schepisi, 1994), Speechless (Ron Underwood, 1994) and While You Were Sleeping (Jon Turteltaub, 1995), as well as a revival of An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957), sometimes watched on TV by the characters in these modern films. These retro romantic comedies of the ‘90s were very self-consciously in the classic romantic comedy mode – sometimes set during Christmas; often about travel to exotic foreign places; stories of initial hate slowly turning to love; stories about love as a liberation from social constraint, or a coming to know oneself and one's true heart desires. But then there are other sorts of modern, even modernist romantic comedies, ones that try to bring a fresh angle to the revival of the great old romantic comedies – let’s call them neo romantic comedies. We could start with films that are resolutely anti-romantic, totally cynical or ironic in relation to the dreams and dramas of romantic love.
Richard Brooks’ The Happy Ending (1969), for example, is a relentlessly miserable experience: kitchen-sink realism of the most depressing kind, wheeled in to demolish every old ideal of true love, love at first sight, love everlasting, happy families in love, you name it. The title is corrosively, bitterly ironic: there is no happy ending in this movie. Brooks uses characters who were themselves hopelessly duped, in their fair, innocent youth, by the dreams and illusions of romantic love, Hollywood-style. Decades later, when we pick up their story, these characters are surveying the shattered pieces of their horrible, loveless married existences, a reality so terribly far from their dream.
There are related films that, not quite so grimly or hopelessly as Brooks, compare the mundane realities of people's lives with the fantasies that have influenced them. This is the sort of modern romantic comedy that weighs up the illusions, criticises the unreal expectations that people sometimes have, works through the real problems of intimacy, commitment, ageing and sexual appetite - but which still, at the end of all this, believes in love and its transformative, vital power. Here I am thinking of movies including Robert Altman's rarely screened A Perfect Couple (1979), John Cassavetes' marvellous Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), the Australian film Lonely Hearts (1981) by Paul Cox and, mostly recently, Kriv Stenders’ digital feature Blacktown (2005). Woody Allen, too, works in this fruitful zone between grey disillusionment and the bright enchantment of the heart.
There's another kind of neo romantic comedy which is determinedly modern, both in its surface look and its themes. These are the films that take on topics like gay love, group love, bisexuality, open relationships, and so on. There have been many films of this kind since the early ‘90s, basically teen movies or ‘twentysomething’ movies like Three of Hearts (Yurek Bogayevicz, 1993), Threesome (Andrew Fleming, 1994), the delightful Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1994), and Spanking the Monkey (David O. Russell, 1994). Although these films have a basically progressive political agenda, they try to stay close to the spirit of the romantic comedy, keeping themselves light and whimsical, with old ‘life's like that’ tag line waiting in the wings for the final fade-out.
A particular subset of this group of films concentrates on the so-called ‘slackers’ of Generation X: those strange teens and twentysomethings whose grasp of reality and morality and emotion is supposedly so damnably weird and new-fangled that, if by chance they happen to fall in love, you can bet it will be a love like no other ever previously seen on screen. Hal Hartley's films inhabit this cultural space, as do, in a more militant gay spirit, those of Gregg Araki. But you can tell from a mile off when one of these Generation X movies is about to lose its nerve and turn into just another retro romantic comedy about picking the right guy or gal and making an old-fashioned commitment. That's what happened to Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994), for instance.
All this talk of slackers and Generation X and ‘laid back’ love brings us to Before Sunrise. Many people would think of it as a love story rather than a romantic comedy, because the laughs are very low-key, incidental, and emerge purely from the interactions and chat of the two main characters. But it's not really a love story in the manner of Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) either, or the Meryl Streep-Robert De Niro film Falling in Love (Ulu Grosbard, 1984), or even Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987). There is no great drama of love in Before Sunrise, no renunciation, no confrontation with partners thrown over, no violent change of lifestyle. No obstacles in the way of love, really, beyond a looming sense of the real, practical world and its daily obligations. It’s a film about love as a matter of a philosophical, existential choice.
There are aspects of Before Sunrise that are not totally unrelated to the retro romantic comedies. Like in Only You, there's an exotic, European backdrop. There's an inter-cultural frisson between the lovers (here, an American guy and a French girl), like between Antonio Banderas and Sarah Jessica Parker in Miami Rhapsody. There's that old device beloved of the classic romantic comedies - sexual tension or sexual deferment, whereby it takes a hell of a long screen time before the main characters start getting it on. It must be said here that Linklater delivers the sexual tension game more skilfully and deliciously than just about any contemporary romantic comedy, whether retro, anti, or neo – right down a discreet did-they-or-didn’t-they ellipse just before that fearsome sunrise.
But one can easily overstate the American romantic comedy genre influences and context in reference to this special, delicate, quite individual film. Understandably for a film which is an Austrian-American co-production, it mixes up romantic comedy influences with other elements, mainly from European art cinema. This mix is evident from the casting. Hawke as Jesse has a very attractive rebel-beatnik aura, sensitive, intelligent, goofy – and also evasive when it comes to emotional declaration or an admission of any romantic yearnings. That all comes with the territory mapped out for this star by Reality Bites. Delpy, on the other hand, has been in some gloomy European or Euro-styled films such as the odd, ponderous incest fantasy Voyager (Volker Schlondorff, 1991) and the AIDS-displaced nightmare Mauvais sang (Leos Carax, 1986). But it was Krystof Kieslowski who gave her a part in a very black, inverted romantic comedy, the tragic love-gone-wrong story which is Three Colours: White (1993). Delpy has had some spectacularly fetishised roles across all these movies, always figuring as some kind of male projection, inside some kind of male fantasy. Before Sunrise gives her a more normal, earthier role. She plays a smart, savvy, hip, modern woman, and she gets to deflate Jesse's sillier flights of egoistic pretension with considerable aplomb. (A moment where she unexpectedly makes a ‘you’re crazy’ gesture with her finger and a vocal sound effect is one of the funniest and loveliest in the entire film.)
The European art cinema influence shows up in the way the film is plotted, too, and its entire feel. Hawke and Delpy meet as strangers on a train and impulsively decide to spend a night wandering around Vienna together. One might hear (because of the Viennese setting) an echo of Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), but I believe there is far more of Roberto Rossellini's classic Voyage in Italy (1953), particularly when these budding lovers have random, meaningful encounters with cemeteries (death or a sense of mortality is a central motif), posters, a street poet, and the gorgeous Bach harpsichord music coming out of the basement of a building. Like in Rossellini’s film, wandering through a foreign place, experiencing its culture and manners, brings not only intoxication, but also disquiet, a feeling of being unsettled deep in one’s soul: a heady but also queasy feeling of being not yourself in this time and place, yet more deeply and truly yourself than you have ever been before.
As in Dazed and Confused, Linklater displays his good ear for music: in the best scene of Before Sunrise, he jams Delpy and Hawke into a pokey listening booth in a somewhat old-fashioned Viennese record shop - it's old fashioned because they still sell vinyl LPs there - and they squirm, trying to avoid each other's eyes as they listen to an earnest folk tune by Kath Bloom, "Come Here". I would call this mise en scène Hitchcockian because Hitch himself used this very same example of private/public interference, taken from the spatiality of the real, everyday world, and varied it to sinister ends in Strangers on a Train (1951). But virtually every scene in Before Sunrise offers a similar example of the emotionally charged (and emotionally repressed) spaces of everyday architecture: bars, restaurants, viewing cable cars (where they kiss, above the world), paths beside a stream.…
Before Sunrise is a fully achieved work of art, far from the exercise in improvisation it has sometimes been mistaken for. Study, for instance, the subtle reframing camera movement around the couple as the fortune teller approaches – one of many small moves in the film that wield, on repeated viewings, tremendous emotional power. Like Claire Denis’ Friday Night (2002 – with which it forms a fascinating diptych), it seizes the detail of the everyday and transforms it into rich, poetic metaphor, without for one moment losing its line to the human presences whose trembling trajectory it so finely stages. And it is not the end of Jesse and Céline’s story: there they are, still talking their pillow talk in Waking Life (2001), and more importantly a full-blown nine-years-later sequel, Before Sunset – for once, a follow-up idea with staggering possibilities, which all Linklater fans were dying to discover.
If there is a Holy Grail that virtually every film by Linklater tenaciously pursues, it is the ideal of living in a way that is ‘totally open to the moment’ – as many of his protagonists might describe it. From Slacker (1991) onwards, his hyper-talkative characters aspire to such heightened sensitivity within themselves – allied with the romantic dream of connecting, almost by chance, to another person who shares that same, heightened state. These very poignant people want to grasp the moment together – and they want to make it last for an eternity.
As the filmmaker who tells this sort of story, Linklater himself is able to go beyond the sometimes comic ditherings and fumblings of his characters in order reach another, more contemplative but no less anguished level. Within each scene, he too tries to capture the immediacy of the moment in all its vibrant, messy complexity. But he realises that a movie as a whole can offer much more than the illusion of an eternal moment – it can provide a reflection on these dreams of spontaneity and fusion, and show what happens to them within the context of passing time, of personal and social history. The ultimate question left open in the story of Before Sunrise – would Jesse and Celine show up six months later for their second, appointed meeting? – vividly dramatised the question of whether ‘the moment’ that they shared would or could survive the steady onslaught of daily reality. At the start of Before Sunset, Jesse is launching his first novel in a Paris bookstore. He has, of course, lightly fictionalised his Viennese experience of nine years previously. As he completes his spiel to journalists, he looks up: Celine is standing there, silently waiting for him. No lover of the original film can resist this perfect, tantalising opening. But where can Jesse and Celine go from here? That, once again, is Linklater’s deepest question. What remains of the fire of their moment – nothing, something, anything, everything? This time, their interaction is bound to be different.
For starters, Celine is longer on holiday in an exotic city; she is at home, in her daily life. So Linklater eschews the parade of eccentric characters and symbolic sites on which the original story was structured – necessarily losing, along the way, the enriching evocation of Voyage in Italy. And then, of course, a lot of water has passed under the bridge for both of them – experiences, relationships, obligations – and for the wide world, too.
So Celine and Jesse go walking. It is possible to find the central section of this second-time-around film a little banal and uneventful in comparison with Before Sunrise. Some aspects of the script – the credit is shared by Linklater with his two brilliantly lovable actors – seem forced, such as the contrast of French versus American manners, or the discussions of global politics. Most sorely missing is the mise en scène characteristic of the original, that exquisite tension between public and private spaces.
But there are, again, subtle riches here. What would normally count in the craft of screenwriting as mere ‘backstory’ – the details of what happened to Jesse and Celine between the end of the first movie and the start of this one – becomes crucially important. On a superficial level, Before Sunset is virtually plotless – a miniature or vignette, the record of a few hours. But its true plot is the intricately structured way in which Celine and Jesse gradually open up to each other about their respective backstories. What they each choose to tell, how, and in what order – as well as the fine details of what they remember, and how different those memories are, not to mention their evasions or outright lies in confessing their feelings – become the substance of the movie.
The very title, Before Sunset, gives this continuation of Jesse and Celine’s story a melancholic pall. Mid-life crisis seems to have come early for these good-looking, well-off professionals in their early ‘30s. The film somewhat overloads the dice in this regard. The more dissatisfied in their lives that Jesse and Celine seem, the more prone they are to be gripped by the possibly foolish romantic notion of ‘the one that got away’, and the less equipped they become to negotiate daily reality. Linklater, I feel, also loses sight of this bigger picture periodically.
But, about fifteen minutes before the end, Jesse and Celine finally get into one of those tight spots reminiscent of the original film – sitting in the back of a chauffeured cab destined to take Jesse to the airport. From that point on, Linklater refinds the romantic tension of Before Sunrise – and adds to it nine years of accumulated doubt, pain and regret. The closing moments are absolutely superb, playing brilliantly on at least two conceptions of time: the pressing time of the deadline, versus the time that Celine dramatises in her affectionate mimicry of Nina Simone’s song – expansive time, suspended time, ‘all the time in the world’. It is in the interval between these two time-frames that a cinematic love story occurs …
Henceforth, Linklater’s artistic integrity as a filmmaker is really on the line. He could, if he so wished, keep pursuing this project for decades to come, as François Truffaut did in his Antoine Doinel series starring Jean-Pierre Léaud. Or he could simply leave us with every question that arises from the portrait of a relationship that has really only taken up parts of two days nine years apart – a sunrise and a sunset. Maybe the love story of Jesse and Celine is simply too fragile to pursue any further into the wilds of time and history. Or maybe that fragility is, after all, the point.
© Adrian Martin October 2005