Friday, July 30, 2010

Day Break

No romance flick (or book, or play) is complete without the lie. It's the sturdiest of third-act twists, the simplest of disruptive conflicts, the easiest ending reveal. And it's not what you did, one of them will say. It's that you lied about it. You didn't trust me. You didn't trust us. How can I trust us, our story together?

Of the many delightful things about Richard Linklater's dazzling walking-around-European-cities duet, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, near the top has to be the breezy avoidance of that standard arc. Perhaps "avoidance" is the wrong word; "translation" might be a better one. By centering the drama around time, and Jesse and Celine's choices at the inevitable endpoint, Linklater gives the two episodes a frame devoid of much narrative contrivance.

But the lie is there, and though Jesse and Celine help it along, it ultimately belongs to Linklater alone.

Upon its 2005 American release, Wong Kar-Wai's delirious, devastating 2046 was frequently compared to Before Sunset, and for good reason. Both were sequels to open-ended love stories, Wong's In the Mood for Love and Linklater's Before Sunrise. Both sequels played with issues of time, memory, and regret, watching their damaged protagonists fail to recover from the feelings they'd opened up in the golden-hued originals. That said, the filmmakers themselves utilize completely different languages. Wong, thanks in large part to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, has one of the most visually ravishing filmographies in recent memory. While In the Mood for Love played out like an exquisite portrait disrupted by unruly emotion, 2046 is feverish and spastic, its obscenely lush reds and interchangeably lovely paramours undercutting Mr. Chow's blind attempts to drown out his past failures.

Linklater, on the other hand, sets his diptych in two of the loveliest cities on Earth (Vienna and Paris, respectively), but refuses to indulge in much sky-gazing. Neither Sunrise nor Sunset establishes a distinctive visual framework beyond its protagonists' faces; it's only through Jesse and Celine, rootless wanderers and then careworn adults, that the audience can access the beauty of their surroundings. Linklater trusts dialogue like few directors working, and more importantly, he trusts his actors to shape that dialogue (it helps that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy co-wrote Sunset). His scripts are delightful in and of themselves, peppy and sharp, but in the hands of Hawke and Delpy, they become sacred: a constantly re-orienting glimpse into their hesitations, their wounds, and their desires.

But very rarely their lies. The novelty of random love in Sunrise was dangerous mystery enough, and while both characters' guards gradually fall throughout Sunset, they begin not in the realm of deception so much as distraction, letting timing carry them along to admit the most wrenching dependencies. No big reveal or third-act twist required--just talking, and a final choice, just like last time.

There's one exception, and it's jarring enough that I almost interrupted my first viewing of Sunset to frantically flip back to Sunrise, wondering how I'd missed it. "It" being, as usual, sex. Not far into Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine mask/reveal their overwhelming shock at seeing each other by discussing Jesse's new book, which tells the story of their night together nine years previous. Celine gently teases him for including a fabricated sex scene. Jesse, wounded, protests that they actually did screw that fateful night. Celine flatly denies it. Later on, she wearily admits that she remembers: "We had sex twice, you idiot!"

It wasn't the traditional big re-orienting lie that forever (i.e., until the credits) alters the romance. How could it? There's no foundation to Jesse and Celine's love, no established stable base for a betrayal to eat away at. They live in one night, and then nine years of memory: it's theirs to relive and remake. That's their lie, and I can't begrudge it to them.

It's Linklater's lie that intrigued me. For once, the audience isn't in on the game--as far as what we saw in Sunrise (namely, a conversation in which they decided not to bone), Celine was originally telling the truth and Jesse had embellished for the sake of his book. Celine's ultimate admission left me adrift. If they hadn't remembered wrong, had I?

I opened up Before Sunrise, skipped ahead to the cemetery scene. There they are, impossibly younger than they were just a few minutes ago. There, they have the conversation. There, they're snuggling. Cut, to the sunrise over the trees.

...oh. I'm impossibly stupid. Had I really missed the most basic of all cuts, the "guys-they-got-it-on-but-now-it's morning" maneuver? I had, after a lifetime of seeing that exact prim sidestep in film after film. How had I failed to understand?

Partially, of course, I took Jesse and Celine at their celibate word, trusting naif that I am. I also trusted Linklater, who'd lovingly displayed every awkward silence, every almost-fight, every teasing meta-conversation throughout the film; it honestly never occurred to me to look for the lie, the cut. I'm not criticizing Linklater in the least--much as I, uh, might enjoy a Hawke-Delpy sex scene, it would've been a massive stylistic departure, not to mention an invitation for a less viable rating. The cut is simple and unassuming, emerging almost out of respect for the couple's privacy rather than out of deference to audience sensibilities. Most importantly, though, it's Sunrise's clearest line forward to Sunset, pregnant with meaning and sadder to return to even than the first film's desperately open ending.

Before Sunset is one of the handful of films I'm happy to call my favorite. When I returned to watch Before Sunrise all the way through, I was prepared for it to be irreparably tarnished, paltry in the shadow of its impossibly resonant progeny. I was wrong: Sunrise, always a delight, is more moving than ever if you know what's coming. Nothing is casual any more. You know that every sweet moment will be pored over for years to come, fixed in amber-hued memory by beautiful people who can't forget. Fixed, and then blurred, shifted, changed, vanished. Sunset expands and deepens every idea presented in Sunrise, but Sunrise holds the weight of history over Sunset, and Linklater's greatest gift is that he refuses to pick sides. He lies in Before Sunrise, and the truth is tucked into Sunset like an askew corner of a puzzle piece. "Think of this as time travel," Jesse says with a grin, "from then to now." Two lies, but one truth.

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