Whilst on a train returning home from visiting her grandmother in Budapest, Céline (Julie Delpy) moves seats when her journey is interrupted by an arguing couple nearby. She impulsively sits across from Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and the two soon strike up a conversation. When they arrive at his stop in Vienna, he asks her to join him as he spends the night strolling around the town before his flight back to America in the morning. What begins as a moment of spontaneity slowly grows into a life-altering encounter. Nine years later, we revisit the pair in Paris, and catch up on where they are in their lives and their relationship.
I am a broken person. An empty, hollowed out shell of a being, devoid of mind, spirit and soul. For, you see, I just don’t like these films. I’ve just listened to a flowing torrent of praise for them, courtesy of the girls on the Across The Universe podcast, and I recently appeared on an episode of the Lambcast on which I, alongside Dan from Public Transportation Snob, Vern from The Vern’s Video Vortex and Dylan and Justin from Man, I Love Films, discussed the career of director Richard Linklater, and it seems it is fairly difficult to find anything other than utter delight and joy at the mere existence of these films, yet they leave me cold and unfulfilled. Much like most of Linklater’s work, to be honest.
As I’m reviewing the first two films in this now-trilogy, there will probably be a few spoilers dotted around, so if you haven’t seen them then go ahead and skip this review if you like. So, what’s my problem with the films? Well, I suppose it doesn’t help that I’m not a big fan of Ethan Hawke, and he makes up approximately 50% of the films. He’s just always so cocky in pretty much everything, and here especially so, when he’s buoyed with the confidence of youth and without the knowledge that pretty much everything he stands for and thinks is wrong. Delpy, on the other hand, is someone I’ve actually enjoyed in a film in the past, and that film is Two Days in Paris. What this meant was I spent most of this film wishing that she hadn’t bumped into Hawke on the train but Adam Goldberg instead, as he’s always great fun to watch, with those crazy eyes of his. If only he and Linklater had stayed in touch after Dazed and Confused, and not just for one segment of Waking Life.Hawke can’t really be entirely blamed though, for whilst his character is barely tolerable he is at least well-rounded and performed well, almost as much as Delpy’s. I think my main issue is that the film feels empty to me. By this I mean that there isn’t a great deal of plot on display in either film, it’s simply focused on these two characters and how they feel about one another, with the conversation drifting tangentially to their home lives, beliefs, aspirations, relationships etc. It doesn’t give me what I want and expect from a film, which is a narrative that, generally, has a point to it, whereas all this feels like is eavesdropping on the conversation of two people who I don’t particularly want to listen to. There doesn’t seem to be any point in watching the films, at least for me, because I don’t like the characters and I don’t care whether they end up together or not.The first film ends on a semi-cliffhanger, with each of them heading their separate ways but agreeing to meet up six months later, but I really didn’t care whether they met up again or not. The second film follows an almost identical format to the first – Céline and Jesse meeting up again, unplanned, in Paris as he finishes a book tour, and they wander the streets talking about everything and nothing for a while, but concludes on another semi-cliffhanger ending. Usually I like ambiguous endings – Inception springs to mind as an endlessly debatable favourite example of mine – but here it feels like whatever happens doesn’t really matter – certainly not to me – but even to Céline and Jesse, as their lives will go on regardless, and should they not stay together, they’ll eventually get over it. Plus, 9 years down the line there’ll be another in-the-balance moment that will remained undecided until nine years later when the previous question is answered, but is replaced with another one. It’s a never-ending cycle until either Delpy, Hawke or Linklater dies, although I imagine that if it’s one of the actors they may still eke out a final film, showing how the surviving character is coping with the loss. Either way, it’s a cycle I want to have no more of a part in, and hence I’ve no intention of seeing the recent Before Midnight, or the inevitable Before Dusk, Before Teatime and Before You Put Your Teeth In, and I sincerely hope none of them end up on the 1001 Movies List. I’m sure Midnight is a perfectly serviceable film, with acting and direction as solid as the previous two efforts, but I hear it too ends on an unclear note, and I just can’t deal with that anymore.
So, is there anything I actually liked about the films? Well I mentioned the acting is good, and the direction is decent too. I wasn’t a fan of the script as it wanders around far more often than I’d have liked, but many other people seem to appreciate that aspect, so take it as you may. There are some decent scenes, of which the music shop one from Sunrise is often cited, during which Jesse and Céline share a listening booth to hear a song, sharing tentative, furtive glances at one another yet shyly looking away when the other catches them, never quite making eye contact, but it goes on far too long and seemed almost a parody of itself after a while. Jesse’s fumbling attempt to kiss Céline on the ferris wheel was refreshing too. In Sunset I was particularly appreciative of how Jesse and Céline were arguing over whether they’d had sex during the night of Sunrise, as this must have been a nod to the mass conjecture caused amongst fans of the first film, who debated with one another just what happened between them as they lay on the grass that night, but other than that the sequel felt more like a self-flagellating short film made to quell the baying fans’ clamouring than a film in its own right, and surely the sequel to such a beloved film deserves more than that? The presence of Delpy’s real-life parents at the end of Sunrise, albeit very briefly, buoyed my spirits a little, as they were superb in Two Days in Paris, but alas the rest of it all felt somewhat predictable. The film just seemed to tick the boxes of the only story Sunrise could have led to in order for Sunset to still be interesting for fans – of course they didn’t get together six months after Sunrise, and that one of them would have tried to and the other not. Of course they’re still pining for one another, but have both moved on romantically. Of course one is married with a child. If it were almost any other way, the film would have been even less interesting, as who wants to watch a heppy couple going about their everyday lives for 90 minutes?
I’ll admit I wasn’t in the most receptive of moods when I watched these films, but that was partly done on purpose, as I’d heard about their remarkable ability to uplift the spirits of those having a bad day, but alas for me the films failed in that respite. Perhaps they’re made for those more romantically inclined people – I was, after all, recently informed I’m a “natural auditor”, and I believe it was meant as a compliment – yet my girlfriend, who is far more romantic than I, wasn’t a fan either, so I don’t really know what to say. If you haven’t seen these films before and would like to enjoy them, maybe don’t try to work out why everyone loves them as you’re watching, because it would seem that’s a pretty good way to ruin them.
Before Sunrise: Choose life, 5/10
Before Sunset: Choose life, 4/10