Wednesday, June 19, 2013

From Sunrise to Sunset to Before Midnight

Before Sunrise, the first film in Richard Linklater's series tracing a trans-Atlantic relationship, begins with a couple spatting on a train through the German countryside. It's the ruckus--the singing of the marital spheres?--that causes Jesse and Celine to meet eyes, roll those eyes, and split together for some quiet in the dining car. They're both in their early twenties, soft with baby fat; Jesse's American and aimless, Celine's French and returning from visiting her grandmother. What follows is the situation I think everyone of a certain age and singleness hopes for when they get on a plane or a bus or a train: Jessie has to fly back the next day and convinces Celine to detrain with him and spend the night in Vienna. They walk around the city together, casting and missing glances, and talking, talking, talking, and it's all romantic as hell.


Before Sunrise is very much of its time, loquacious and earnest, as interested in the offhand things we think as it is the offhand things we do. It follows self-taught director Richard Linklater's cult classic Dazed and Confused, but shares more in common with his first proper film, Slacker. That 1991 indie takes place over one summer day in Austin, Texas, and is a kind of human daisy chain about little more than walking and talking. Appearing around the same time as Douglas Coupland's Generation X, Slacker became something of a touchstone for the burgeoning overstimulated, underemployed generation. As a filmmaker, Linklater was one of the major players in the early 90s American DIY cinema wave, but has since gone on to have a fairly uneven career, matching his mainstream stinkers with thoughtful, interesting volleys. It should be pointed out that since those uneven years of the noughts Linklater's been chipping away at a single film, maybe titled Boyhood. The film's remarkable for the fact that it's filmed in real time, following a boy from birth to adolescence. His commercial stabs aside, Linklater has maintained a very genuine, vibrant curiosity with what film is and what it can do.

Sunrise's "sequel," Before Sunset came on the heels of the not-terrible Jack Black vehicle The School of Rock. Nine years later, Jesse has written a novel about that slacker night in Vienna. His book tour takes him to Paris, and his book brings Celine to the reading. Again, Jesse has a flight to catch, and again the two, now without their baby plumpness, stroll through a European city in real time, talking, talking, talking. And it's all almost romantic as hell.


Standing alone, Before Sunrise can seem a little saccharine--which is perfectly fine, I should add. I saw the movie in my early teens and was completely taken by--what was to me, at that time--the rare combination of romance and intelligence. Watching it now, it still strikes me as very honest and interesting. But in some ways Before Sunset contextualizes the saccharineness of the first movie. Those elements in the first movie that seem trite are also the elements of our youth that seem trite now in retrospect. In the nine years between movies, Jesse has gotten married and has a new baby, and Celine works in environmental law; Jesse has found a way to profit from his idealistic pontificating, whereas Celine has grown a bit more cynical, less trusting of the world--she's hasn't exactly lost her faith in romance or the possibility of the kind of happiness her night in 1994 with Jesse suggested, but she's becoming suspicious. Sunset is still a romantic movie, but it's different from the romance in Sunrise. Before, there was a possibility that romance was something you could do with your life; here it's something you do in defiance of life.

Now we have the third installment of Jesse and Celine's relationship. In nine more years, they've gotten married and, as far as I know, the question now is what happens when a relationship founded on movie-like romance has to live in the real world. I haven't seen the movie yet, but from reviews I've read, it should be interesting to think back to how Jesse and Celine first met. Rolling their eyes at the bickering married couple on the train, I can't help but imagine they both thought to themselves, "That will never be my life."

- Andrew

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