starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
(photos averaged to save space)
Before Sunrise
Kim Krizan and Richard Linklater, 1995

Before Sunset
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Kim Krizan and Richard Linklater, 2004
(#3, 2004 Skandies)

Before Sunrise is about an American boy and French girl in their early 20s who meet cute on a train in Vienna and, on a whim, decide to spend the night wandering around the city and talking about life, the universe and everything. Also there are some makeouts. Roger Ebert says this is an ideal movie for teenagers, and I can see why: not just because teenagers love makeouts, but also because they are young enough that they haven't already heard pretty much everything that everybody has to say about life, the universe and everything. I, however, am old. At this point I have already heard any number of undergraduate takes on parenting and reincarnation and bonobos and whatnot. In order for me to care about what someone has to say, at least one of the following conditions must obtain:

  • The speaker has some sort of expertise on the subject

  • The ideas are expressed artistically

  • I care about the speaker for some reason

We can dispense with Condition 1 right away, as there are no professors in the Department of Random Musings. Nor does Condition 2 hold. Here to explain why is Pattern 32:

32 Some stories exist in order to convey ideas. Great! But those stories should illustrate their ideas; don't just stick the ideas in the characters' mouths.

Now, a few years ago, I would have said that Before Sunrise doesn't qualify for this admonition because it isn't actually a story about ideas — that the ideas are basically just filler in a story that's all about two bright twentysomethings bonding, and that we're clearly not intended to take the dialogue as food for thought but rather to absorb what it tells us about the characters. But then I saw the writer/director's later film Waking Life, and was horrified to discover that the characters didn't stick around long enough for their monologues to tell us anything about them — that Linklater actually did want us to mull over their unbearable pseudo-philosophical ramblings at face value. This retroactively poisoned my opinion of Before Sunrise, suggesting as it did that I was supposed to be stroking my chin and thinking, "Why, that's a perceptive observation on Ethan Hawke's part." Fortunately, unlike Waking Life, Before Sunrise actually does offer something else to keep it from being an audiovisual torture device.

Which brings us to Condition 3. I was willing to listen to the dialogue insofar as it furthered the story about these two kids trying to figure out what they were going to do about the electricity between them. It's pretty well done, though watching them stay up past sunrise brought back the sense memory of my very misguided decision in 2003 not to book a hotel room on a day trip to Austin. I don't think I've ever been more excruciatingly exhausted than at 3 a.m. at the Kerbey Lane Cafe, knowing I had three more hours to kill before my flight home. But I struggled through my flashbacks and was able to summon up enough interest in Jesse and Celine to give Before Sunrise a marginal thumbs up.

And I think I liked Before Sunset slightly more. It's got a less generic, more interesting premise: after arranging to meet at the train station in six months but exchanging no contact information, Jesse and Celine missed their connection and went on with their lives. Now it's nine years later and Jesse has written a book about the events of Before Sunrise; the book has done well enough that he finds himself in Paris to do a signing, and Celine shows up. They have an hour to talk before he leaves for the airport, each of them subtly trying to tease out how much that night meant to the other while keeping up some defenses in case the answer turns out to be "not much."

I actually had something a little similar to this happen after I wrote Ready, Okay! — I've told this story a few times, but for those who haven't memorized my entire backlog, here it is again. I skipped a couple of grades when my family moved out to California, so I was twelve when I started high school. It turned out that there was a girl in my class who'd just skipped junior high and was therefore the same age. I've mentioned her name before but for now I guess I'll call her M. So every now and again during my freshman year I would get stopped by older girls who were curious about what I was doing on campus since I was clearly prepubescent. When I explained that I had skipped some grades, they would inevitably squeal, "Wow, just like M.! Oh my god, you guys should go out — that would be so cu-u-ute!" But due to a quirk of scheduling, we didn't have any classes together and so I didn't actually meet her until tenth grade. And she was very shy, so it took pretty much the entire year to get to know her at all. But by the time school let out, I had decided — she was nice, and pretty, and the only girl my age whom I was ever likely to meet, and so when school started back up in the fall, I was going to get to know her better and if there weren't any obvious red lights, I was going to ask her out.

Then junior year started and I found out that over the summer M. had moved to Alabama. So much for that. Naturally she was one of the first people I tried to track down following the advent of the web, but her name is really common so neither Lycos nor Altavista nor Hotbot nor Google could help me. Then my book came out. It got a total of one major newspaper review: the Seattle Times. And it just so happened that M. was living in Seattle and read the article and emailed me out of the blue. We met up a few times, but here things diverge from the movie scenario because it wasn't a Before Sunset situation: there had never been any chemistry between us — just this weird link and the sense (at least on my part) that in a not entirely implausible alternate universe she could have been my first everything and a hugely important player in my life instead of just a quirky cameo.

I read some reviews that observed that one difference between Before Sunrise and Before Sunset is that, in the latter film, the older, wiser, and craggier Jesse and Celine know that their sort of chemistry doesn't come along every day, or every lifetime. You tell 'em, vaguely-remembered reviews! I, for instance, have never clicked with anyone like this. I've had a couple of one-sided versions, I guess: in high school, after M. left, I developed quite a crush on my friend S., with whom I spent a lot of time and had my share of deep kitchen-table conversations. She was also a genuinely good-hearted person, and way out of my league in the looks department (pretty face, legendary body). But there were no yearning glances being cast in my direction, which I suppose is for the best since the idea of someone like me being involved with a devoutly Catholic interior decorator is kind of preposterous and consequently I can't really think of her as the one who got away. In college I wound up in what on the surface may have looked even more like a Before Sunrise scenario, sitting on my bed with K. at 3 a.m. every other night talking about life, the universe and everything, but once again, any sparks were only flying in one direction, and since then our friendship has evolved in such a way that the idea of being involved with her is actually slightly gross to me — it'd be like marrying my cousin. (Uh, no offense, K.!)

Even the long-term relationships I've had haven't begun with the sort of mutual attraction on display in these films. For a while I thought I had found it with J., since I was (and still am) tremendously impressed by her intelligence and wit, and when I summoned up the courage to tell her so, she responded by being my girlfriend for six years, which would normally seem like an encouraging sign. However, it turned out that I had misread her motivations, and the fact that it took the aforementioned six years for this piece of information to work its way through our communicative apparatus is indicative of the extent to which we were ever really on the same page. My relationship with E. is significantly healthier, but if Before Sunrise is a "romance for realists," then ours is a romance for, uh, photorealists? I mean, it could hardly be more storgic. She was my best friend; we were sufficiently attracted to each other that we'd fooled around a bit; she asked whether I wanted to become an item; I was uncertain; I got an Okcupid account; Okcupid said she was my best match by several percentage points; I said okay. It's been a couple of years since we got together, so I tell myself that if I'd ever had stars in my eyes for her they would've faded by now anyway. But I wouldn't really know.

See, it was nice to know going in that I wasn't going to wake up in a few months and discover that the magnetism had worn off and left me with someone with whom I was totally incompatible. (And considering that I spent the majority of my teenage years with designs on my best friend at the time, there is something to be said for the experience of finally having such a relationship come to fruition.) But at the same time, to meet someone new who totally gets your motor running, and then to get to talking and discover that you're practically soulmates, and to have it dawn on you that, merciful Zeus, she's the One — and then to get some unmistakable signals that the feeling's mutual — even if it later turns out to be a disaster, that must be something!

Spoilers for the ending of Before Sunset
Before Sunset concludes with a much-discussed scene in Celine's apartment. As noted, they've each been sort of hinting around to see how much the night in Before Sunrise meant to the other, but of course there's something of an imbalance there: Jesse, after all, wrote a frickin' book about it, so clearly it wasn't just a fling to him. Celine is a little more coy about it — pretending not to remember certain elements of it, for instance — in part because she knows Jesse is married with a child and therefore doesn't want to bare her soul in hopes of a future together that isn't going to happen. But after they talk some more and it becomes clear that his marriage is a sham, they return to her apartment, and having heard her mention that she writes songs now, he asks her to sing him one. And the song that she sings — which we, happily, get to hear in full — is very simple, quite pretty, and completely flat-footed: "You were for me that night / Everything I always dreamt of in life / [...] / One single night with you, little / (sigh) Jesse... / Is worth a thousand with an-y-body..." Cut to a reaction shot of a man discovering that the woman he's dreamed of every night for nine years still wants him. It's pretty powerful stuff — especially if, like me, you actually did see the first film in the '90s and can therefore feel the weight of all those intervening years.

But then Celine goes to make some tea and Jesse puts on some kind of soul music, leading to a conversation about the singer. Celine says, "She was so funny in concert — she would be right in the middle of a song and then, y'know, stop and walk from the piano all the way to the edge of the stage, like really slowly, and she'd start talking to someone in the audience: 'Oh yeah, baby, oh yeah, mmhmm, I love you too.' And then she'd walk back, took her time, no hurry, y'know... she had that big, cute ass, heh heh, she'd move, whoo!" And then proceeds to spend the concluding moments of the movie imitating this woman. Um, wtf? How exactly are we supposed to take this? Isn't it basically the same thing as the time on The Simpsons when Homer saw a Bollywood movie?: "It's funny! Their clothes are different from my clothes! Hee hee hee!" Swap out "clothes" and swap in "sense of decorum" and you pretty much have Celine's speech right there. Now, you can argue that Celine isn't mocking the soul singer but demonstrating a genuine appreciation for her earthy manner. But in a way, that's worse! One thing we learn in Before Sunset is that Celine went to NYU — where she no doubt could be overheard telling her friends about how she went up to Harlem to see a movie and everyone in the audience was carrying on and talking right back to the screen and ha ha it was a blast and oh my god you gotta go! Whereupon some millionaires' kids from Westchester flash gang signs at her and a white guy who's watched a few giant robot cartoons calls her "gaijin." I don't know what it is, but this sort of cultural appropriation rubs me the wrong way. But maybe that prickliness is why I've never made this sort of connection: if I were Jesse my next line would've been, "All right, I've got a plane to catch."

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