Sunday, February 20, 2011

Two People

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2004)

There’s something almost unbearably touching and joyous about Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. It’s a sequel to his 1995 Before Sunrise, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy played two students spending the night together in Vienna. At the end of that film they agreed to meet in six months time. Now it’s nine years later, and he’s a writer, doing a signing at a Paris bookshop. He looks up, and there she is. With little more than an hour until he must leave for the airport, they take off for a coffee, and the camera follows them in real time.

Before Sunset

We soon learn she didn’t turn up for the appointment, and he did, but they both say they’ve moved on from it. He’s married; she’s in what she calls a good relationship. Their conversation crams in mundane updates and major revelations, dumb jokes and sharp tension...all set against stunning Parisian scenery, and underlay by the unavoidable question: will he make his plane?

The film’s concept and execution are inherently quite simple of course, and watching Before Sunset I increasingly felt that the detritus built up from years of imprecise viewing was being cleared away, allowing a return to something purer and elemental (I know that’s overdone – but it really is how I felt). The film makes you realize the mundanity of most people in movies now – we watch them as figures in a narrative, maybe we fear for or even cry for them, but the lights come up and they’re soon forgotten. It’s popular to point out that stars now don’t match up to those of the 30’s and 40’s, and it’s true, but in fairness nothing about the infrastructure gives the current contenders much of a chance. In Before Sunset the film slows down, their faces fill the screen, and they flood over us.

The film is being commended for the intelligence of its dialogue, but I don’t think that’s the point. A lot of what they say is superficial twaddle, just as in any conversation that might try to fit nine years into an hour. Neither is a great thinker – they contradict themselves, they strike attitudes, they make bland generalizations. You get a tangible sense of their limitations. Both actors are magnificent, in a way that might not readily strike you as such. Hawke is becoming especially interesting: looking worryingly gaunt, almost feral, at times, he fully conveys the brittleness of his character’s apparent success.

Reliance On Absence

The memory of the earlier event is of course central to what unfolds in Before Sunset, and this is yet another sense in which its impact seems to flow from the very heart of cinema. Linklater flashes back to the earlier film, but in a gorgeously subtle, almost subliminal way. As the characters turn over the event, the film becomes much more inextricably linked to the earlier movie than is the case for most sequels; the absence of the earlier event, the earlier film, their earlier selves, is as dominant in the structure as what’s present. Whether or not we think about it, cinema always relies on absence – on our knowledge of the unseen space that connects one shot to the next, of the resonances of earlier films and roles.

I’m not trying to argue Before Sunset is in some way the apex of cinema. Even on the same day I saw it, I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev, which is a much more ambitious, challenging and ultimately overwhelming work. Tarkovsky’s film is great cinema that overspills its boundaries – it’s a work of poetry, of politics, of historical scholarship, of philosophical reverie. By contrast, Before Sunset, if you want to put it this way, is “just” a film. Except for everything I’ve mentioned, and that in its pervading fear that (even in their early 30’s) their best times may already have slipped by, it taps into universal anxiety. I called it joyous, but it’s also consistently melancholy.

Richard Linklater is rapidly becoming a critical favourite, in particular after Waking Life. Most critics loved The School Of Rock too, although I couldn’t see more to it than genre clichés and stock characters (I did smile at it a lot though). To this point I’ve been a mild dissenter; certainly I would have foregone several Linklater projects in exchange for a new film by Whit Stillman, who seems to have vanished after The Last Days Of Disco. But Before Sunset is a near-masterpiece. It seems like something that can’t be replicated, but Linklater and the actors are already talking about the possibility of a third film.

Oh, and did I mention Before Sunset may have the best ending of any film this year?

Facing Windows

The Italian film Facing Windows, directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, is a moderately interesting work, but it illustrates many of the points I made above about why Before Sunset is so refreshing. The film sets up a somewhat cumbersome parallel between an amnesiac concentration camp survivor preoccupied by a long-ago lost love, and an unhappy young woman in danger of cracking under the strain of her unsatisfying job and stagnant marriage. Her dream is to be a pastry chef – yes, this is another foreign film that lathers the screen in great-looking food – and it turns out that the old man used to be the best pastry chef in Rome. Hey, sounds like a mutually beneficial relationship.

Ozpetek’s best-known film remains The Turkish Bath; his most recent was Innocent Fairies, another tale of homosexuality as transgression. Facing Windows seems like an attempt to tap a broader agenda, but it’s conventional at times, contrived at others. At the end, we watch the woman alone as we hear in voice-over a letter she wrote to the old man. The letter asserts the connection between them in terms that seem excessive given what we’ve actually seen on the screen. Then she turns and looks directly into the camera, at us, the spectators. The camera moves in for a close-up of her eyes, looking out at us, and holds the close-up for the full length of the closing credits.

It’s a bold piece of cinema, bolder than anything in Before Sunset perhaps, but it feels utterly forced. The invisible wall between the characters and the viewers is one of cinema’s most hallowed conventions; thus breaking that convention can provide a director one hell of a weapon. The way that Ozpetek uses it seems to me rather gauche. It’s the kind of superficially clever but unanchored device that might seem appealing to the protagonists of Before Sunset, if they were filmmakers, but which their director – being a few years older and wiser than they are - knows to let pass.

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