Time Measured in Heartbeats
By Fernando F. Croce

Watching Before Sunset is like putting on to a favorite old track you haven't listened to in years -- the feelings arise not only from the music itself, but from the acknowledgement of the time that has passed since you last heard it. Its lilt is so effortless to the naked eye that it's tempting to praise it simply as a refreshing alternative to the noisy squeeze of summer blockbusters (that is, praising it out of relief for what it is not). No, what makes it so special is its resurrection, within a mere 80 minutes, of such concepts as gracefulness, patience, expressiveness, and, simply, emotion -- notions that, no matter how basic they may sound, are nevertheless always in danger of getting drowned out by the clikety-clack of money-grabbing machines. I more than enjoyed Before Sunset -- I was grateful to it.

The film is, of course, a sequel to Before Sunrise, which, released in 1995 amid so much irony and "coolness," dared to suggest that Generation-Xers were still capable of romance and delicacy. In it, two young strangers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), met on an Eurail train and spent a day and a night together wandering Vienna. A bond forged, they made a promise to meet again six months later. One of my personal faves from the decade, the picture reintroduced romance as emotional connection to a generation that basically knew it mostly in quotation marks. It was a lovely, soul-satisfying movie, almost Ophülsian in grace, and even its ambiguous ending was self-sufficient: whether or not the characters kept their rendezvous, I thought at the time, was less important than the feelings the two would forever be carrying within.

And yet, pragmatic crank that I am, I wondered. Did they or didn't they? Director Richard Linklater must have wondered, too, rotoscoping Jesse and Celine in for a brief Waking Life sketch before actually addressing the two in the flesh with Before Sunset. Nine years later after their pact, their paths cross again at the little Parisian bookstore where Jesse, now a writer, is promoting a novel based on their night together. His flight to New York ticking closer, they grab on to every moment to learn what has happened since, who they've become, and whether the connection they had nearly a decade ago still carries the same weight. Like in the first film, verbosity spills over from the characters -- dialogue, conversation arcs started, broken and then picked up again, propel and shape the couple's wanderings in and out of cafés, parks and ferries far more than any conventionally streamlined "plot." Action as talk.

Talk it may be, but it is not cheap. Has it really been that long since Andrew Sarris, defending the action-free sublimity of Dreyer's Gertrud, declared that nothing is more cinematic than two people yakking away their share of eternity? One of the beauties of the film is the way it views dialogue as an essential extension of the humanity of the characters, so that every word is too revealing of them to be deemed trivial by the camera's fond gaze. More than that, talk is bound to the wholeness of their personalities, along with their gestures and facial expressions, and Linklater, like Renoir, McCarey, La Cava and Rohmer before him, under- stands their preciousness. Thus his scrupulous use of behavior-oriented two-shots, always ready to pick up some curlicue of emotion present in action and reaction, and of beautifully fluid camera movements that preserve the unity of time and space that's so important to the story (props to steadicam master Larry McConkey on his work here).

Few American pictures have recently displayed such attention to the importance of the passing of time, honestly recorded instead of manipulated. In a recent Film Comment piece, Amy Taubin perceptively linked it to Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as cinematic works taking their structure from the shapes of emotions. That I much prefer the continuum of Before Sunset and Lost in Translation to the reheated-Resnais splintering of Eternal Sunshine probably betrays the Bazinian in me (unity of movement over meteoric montage), but the fact is that time plays into various other aspects of the film. After all, it isn't just the characters who are nine years older, but also the actors playing them, the director, and, dare I say it, I am older. What has happened since the first meeting is as important as what takes place now -- again, the acknowledgment of time passed, meaning life lived.

To his credit, Linklater, (not to mention Hawke and Delpy, who contributed extensively to the screenplay and again deliver marvelously alive performances) sidesteps the misanthropic fallacy of curdled youth. Jesse and Celine may be older and less idealistic than they were in Before Sunrise, but that doesn't mean they've turned jaded -- though plagued with personal troubles and disappointments, they have retained the openness to life and experience that has always been a Linklater hallmark. The film's radar charts humor, hope, awkwardness, elation, regret and yearning (to name just a few) so delicately and in such fine shades that, by the time it reaches its final note, emotion again trumps ambiguity. Will there be another meeting nine years from now? I can hardly wait.

Reviewed June 6, 2004.

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