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Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005

Ray of hope for realistic romanticists



Before Sunset

Rating: * * * * 1/2(out of 5)
Director: Richard Linklater
Running time: 81 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Going to the movies a lot is a bit like sleeping around. You open yourself up, allow your feelings to be toyed with, but you often get so little in return -- a few laughs, a thrill or two. After a while you start to walk out feeling a bit numb, empty, used.

News photo
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in "Before Sunset"

If you're really lucky, a couple of times in your cinema-going life you'll stumble upon a film that really connects with you. Not some abstract demographic but you, in all your particulars and complexities, sorrows and desires. Finding such a film is like meeting a friend you never knew you had, who somehow shares and expresses your experience, but from an entirely different perspective.

Yes, I know that's the beauty of all art, this elusive ability to connect and commune. And yet this happens so rarely it's worth gasping when it does. As Julie Delpy points out in "Before Sunset," "to truly communicate with people is very hard to do."

"Before Sunset" speaks -- as directly as possible, short of pressing its lips to your ear -- of how hard it is to hold onto ideals of love, romance and passion as the experience of your 20s produces a more brittle, defensive, cynical you in your 30s. "When you're young, you still believe that there are many people you can connect with . . . " confides Delpy's character Celine -- and if you don't need me to finish that sentence for you, then go out and see this film now.

With "Before Sunset," director Richard Linklater has achieved the near-impossible: making a sequel that seems like a natural extension, never forced or contrived. In his 1995 film "Before Sunrise," twentysomething American traveler Jesse (Ethan Hawke) catches the eye of French tourist Celine (Delpy) on a train; he persuades her to spend a day with him in Vienna, and as the film tracks them strolling around the city, we watch them fall in love. At the end of their magical night together, Celine has to rush to catch her train, and the two make a last-minute promise to meet again, at the same spot, six months hence.

Did they, or didn't they? It's a testament to the intimacy and emotional connection of the film that so many people wanted to know, including actors Delpy and Hawke, who pushed for the chance to bring their characters back together. They ended up contributing so much that they both have screenplay credits with Linklater on "Before Sunset."

"Sunset" picks up the story nine years after we last saw Jesse and Celine. Jesse is an author, and in Paris as part of a promotional tour for his debut novel, which is based on his night with Celine. At a Q&A session at a funky old bookstore, a reporter asks Jesse if he thinks his novel's couple got back together. "It's a good test of whether you're a romantic or a cynic," he replies.

His glib answer falls apart when he notices Celine at the back of the shop and his jaw nearly drops. With some time to kill before he has to catch a flight home, he slips out for a cup of coffee with her, and the excitement and nervousness on both their faces is unmistakable. They both want to know the same thing, which is, what happened to that plan to meet again?

As they stroll around Paris, they slowly fill each other in on what they've been doing for the past nine years, and ever so slowly get to the big, burning questions about any significant others. It's clear that the two are still hopelessly attracted to each other, but its unclear if either of them will find the courage to make a move before Jesse's plane leaves.

The film is essentially just one long conversation, but it builds from playful flirting to desperate revelation, with Delpy and Hawke finding a rhythm so natural, so slack, that any distance between them and their characters is erased. It's hard to hear them talk and not feel that there's a lot of the real still-single Delpy and recently separated Hawke in there. A bold move, yes, but one that adds infinitely to the film's honesty and realism.

Linklater has always enjoyed playing things close to real-time, with the 24-hour time frames of films like "Dazed & Confused," "Suburbia" and "Before Sunrise." Here, he actually does go real-time, with mobile cameras shadowing Hawke and Delpy as they walk and talk through the Latin Quarter and on a boat ride down the Seine past Notre Dame. Linklater's perfectly willing to use the scenery to nudge the romantic mood, to make the viewer hope -- as surely as if it were you yourself up there on the screen -- that these two can find their groove.

But what "Before Sunset" does so damn well is to make you worry that they won't. Everyone recognizes what's up on screen here -- the hesitancy to open up, the fear of revealing the "real you," the wondering if the other person is thinking what you are -- and we all know how easy it is to blow it in real life. Not for a moment are you allowed to forget how hard it is to open up to the possibility of passion and love after being burned a few times. Linklater calls his "Before" films "romance for realists," and that's an apt description. It's all about knowing better and being swept away anyway.



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