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Beyond words
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are back
More on this topic

Sleeping beauty: Waking Life is a dream of a movie. By Steve Vineberg.

Class project: High grades School of Rock. By Peter Keough.

Before and after: Sunset reunites Delpy and Linklater. By Gerald Peary.

The romantic comedy, as a contemporary genre, appeals to a certain universality. Each member of the audience of a film like Love Actually or Somethingís Gotta Give is supposed to be able to identify with the stars and recognize in them his or her own longings, fears, reflexes, and perhaps even mannerisms. The danger of a film premised on such a "weíve all been there; this could be any of us" appeal is cultural blackmail, a coercive normalization. Furthermore, itís not just by some misunderstanding that these films are known as "chick flicks." The central role in them is generally Woman in her culturally ordained function as defender of monogamy ó the supreme value in romantic comedy.

With Before Sunset, their new entry in the genre, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy take two crucial steps. First, they question monogamy as a value while letting the question go unanswered, so that the narrative action, instead of aiming at forming a couple who will live happily ever after, remains absorbed with the more realistic (and thus potentially more moving and valid) question of whether the couple can get together for just one afternoon. Second, in this film, the "this could be any of us" is an explicit rather than a covert gesture: Linklater and his stars propose that, rather than take these characters at face value, we question our own interest in them. Which is to question what romantic comedies usually leave unexamined: the universality of their lovers and their fitness to represent us.

Before Sunset takes place on a single afternoon in Paris, nine years after the one-night encounter in Vienna between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) that was the subject, nine years ago, of Linklaterís Before Sunrise. Jesse has written a novel about their meeting, and Céline (as he hoped) shows up at his book signing at Shakespeare & Co. With only an hour or so before Jesse must go to catch his plane, he and Céline fill each other in on what has happened to them, and, little by little, they reveal how their meeting has transformed them.

Like any romantic-comedy characters, these two generalize a good deal; presenting themselves as Everyman and Everywoman, they comment on love and life. They have a lot to say. Itís as if he had become a writer, and she an environmentalist, just in order to have something to talk to each other about. The actors contributed to their dialogue, and one of Hawkeís lines deserves a permanent place in anthologies. Describing his stale marriage (which produced a now four-year-old child), he says, "I feel like Iím running a nursery with someone I used to date."

It isnít necessary to like these people in order to find Beyond Sunset incisive and touching, though it will help. Linklater ó who, as in his previous films, withholds obvious judgment on his characters and seems to accept everything ó is in the position here of trading on his starsí presumed attractiveness while also showing them in a way that makes their obnoxiousness just as apparent. As Jesse and Céline, Hawke and Delpy never escape being Hawke and Delpy, attractive and famous movie stars. Their narcissism is always foregrounded, in a way that the narcissism of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall never is in Howard Hawks films. Before Sunset is weakest in those moments that depend most on your liking the stars (whereas Hawks films are often strongest in such moments), and the final scene, for all its brilliance as filmmaking, is a gamble that comes off only to the extent that youíre dazzled with Delpy.

The intelligence of the film is in its mise-en-scène: the articulation of looks, the shot choices, the cutting. At each turning point, Linklater contrives to show the attitudes of both Céline and Jesse. To say this is not merely to state the obvious but to identify the main will of the film: to show the two not only talking but watching and listening to each other, reacting, anticipating, hesitating as they decide how much to disclose and how to do it. Linklaterís style enhances the nuances of the dialogue while making it clear that more is going on in and between these two than whatís being said. The result is a complicated and thrilling game that, unlike some diversions we have had lately, does not debase the words "romantic" and "comedy."

Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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