Underrated: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset

There is nothing in cinema I despise more than artificiality. What I mean by this has nothing to do with a dislike of genres whose existences depends on their inherent artifice  such as fantasy or science fiction. It is the purpose of those films to find truth within the world of the fantastical. What I detest are films that present their situations and circumstances as realistic and yet are completely lacking in truth. No genre in the last ten years has been worse in this regard than the American romance film. Granted, romance is an idealized state of mind, and has been expressed in aggrandized fashion in literature and especially poetry over the centuries. So I will concede that it can be expected that Hollywood would run away with the concept of romance. This is not to say that all Hollywood romances are bad. Anyone who has seen Casablanca can attest to the effectiveness of that film’s glamorization of romance. The issue at stake is the fact that over the past decade or so, Hollywood has been more than content to churn out formulaic, unimaginative romantic films by the dozens.  However, every once in a while, one unearths a diamond in the rough, or in this case, two. It was not until just recently that I discovered Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two films that take place (and were filmed) nine years apart (1995 and 2004, respectively), yet cover a massive scope of what romance means on a deeply serious level. The films are disarming in their simplicity, yet remain among the most moving romantic films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.

The films center around two people, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and Celine (Julie Delpy), who meet for the first time on train headed to Vienna. The two immediately connect on the ride, and Jesse comes up with the crazy idea of asking Celine to go out with him for the day in Vienna, even though she is headed to Paris. Convincing her that this one day could be quite memorable, Jesse and Celine head off together, and throughout the day they discover that they might be meant for each other. Such is the nature of impulsive, reckless romance, and Before Sunrise embraces it wholeheartedly. As the day wanes on, the two grow affectionate for each other, and are faced with the hard reality of the ephemeral nature of their relationship. However, nine years later, in Before Sunset, the two happen to run into each other again in Paris. Jesse has written a bestseller, which is based upon that day that he was with Celine in Vienna. Crazily enough, the two pick up right where they left off, but as the evening sets in, their true emotions rise to the surface. The insane pleasure of the films, however, is that they to refuse to sentimentalize anything. Where most typical romance films sum up a couple’s day within the span of a two minute montage, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset capture an entire day over the course of ninety minutes. Every conversation, every awkward silence, and every decision is felt and wholly earned.

The reason for the films’ strength is very much in the dialogue and the performances from the leads. It isn’t just that Hawke and Delpy play off each other effortlessly, which is, granted, a key aspect to any romantic film. The truly amazing aspect of their relationship is that it appears as if they are a real couple, to the extent that one feels as if one is actually spying on them as they promenade the streets of Vienna and Paris. Every cadence of dialogue feels completely natural, and the visual style of the film is entirely devoted to the script. Scenes are covered in long takes, which never feel obtrusive and compliment the banter that both couples have. To some degree, these films don’t have much visual flair, but when one is enjoying the company of a couple like this it does not matter at all. Though these films carry the ideas of romance like many other American films, they manage to avoid all cliches because they ultimately examine romance on a deeply clinical and psychological level. The depths to which these films plumb is remarkable, yet never heady. Never before have I seen a pair of films which so deeply speak to questions and conflicts that I’ve had in my own life, and that, after all, is why I found the films to be as powerful as they were. Every dramatic beat in these films is rightfully earned, even as the characters lose themselves in each other. It will be interesting to see if in a few years time, Linklater decides to direct another one of these films. With characters like these and conversations as investigative of the human soul as anything cinema has ever produced, another follow up film would be more than welcome.

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~ by romancinema on December 18, 2011.

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