Before Sunset (4/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

Sitting through this film made me realize, once again, what a remarkably good film My Dinner With Andre (1981) was. That consisted entirely of Wally (Wallace Shawn) having dinner with his old friend Andre (Andre Gregory). Itís mostly Wally listening and Andre talking. Sounds dreadful. Itís brilliant. The two actors are so good that you could watch them have their dinner endlessly. Andre is a raconteur deluxe. Directed by Louis Malle and written by Shawn and Gregory, itís a tour de force.

Then thereís Before Sunset. It has a lot in common with ĎAndre, in that two of its three writers were the two stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (who also wrote three songs; the third writer is Director Richard Linklater), and it consists entirely of conversation between Jesse (Hawke), a writer returning to Paris for a book tour, and Celine (Delpy), with whom he spent a one night stand nine years previously, documented in Linklaterís Before Sunrise (1995). She shows up at a roundtable for his book and they go for coffee and take a walk through Paris. There the similarities with ĎAndre end.

I got a feeling for the quality of this film during Jesseís roundtable with writers at the outset when Linklater throws in a clumsy reverse. I hate reverses when I have to watch them on TV interviews where theyíre inserted only to prove that the superstar TV reporter is really there asking questions and with only one camera a reverse is the only way; but in a movie? How unprofessional.

Before Sunset is shot in real time. Jesse has 80 minutes before he has to leave to catch his plane and thatís how long the movie lasts. Because the film takes place in real time in the late afternoon, that was the only time they could shoot. Says Linklater, ďItís like, ĎOK, weíve got the light for two hours. Go!í Boom. We do the scene. You have a certain amount of time, limited time. Go.Ē So there couldnít be lots of takes, which put pressure on the actors to do clean takes.

The problem starts with the fact that I detected not one iota of chemistry between Jesse and Celine. When thereís chemistry, there is a lot of eye play between the two. There are furtive glances, occasional catching and holding of the eyes, all wordless, but speaking volumes. In a real life situation, where she shows up surprising him after nine years, there would be some awkwardness and some shy eye play. Thereís none of that here.

My opinion is that Hawke just isnít up to playing romantic leads. He was dismal in Taking Lives (2004), which required chemistry between his character and Angelina Jolie in order to make the movie work. It wasnít there and the movie was a bomb. He was good in Training Day (2001) but he didnít have to work with a woman.

There were two things that I particularly detested about this film. The first was the smoking scene. While theyíre having coffee she lights up and then he does, too. I donít think two people sitting there blowing smoke in each otherís face is romantic. Given all the disease that smoking causes, and the epidemic of nicotine addiction, especially among the impressionable young, there is no justifiable reason for filmmakers to include smoking in scenes, other than to glorify it. I think itís despicable when filmmakers insert these gratuitous scenes apotheosizing smoking.

The second is the moral ambivalence about the importance of the family unit and personal responsibility. Jesse has a wife and a four-year-old son and heís apparently willing to destroy his sonís happy family life so he can hook up with this woman heís only known for a total of 9 hours or so. His ďhappinessĒ is more important.

Given the uninvolving dialogue, the uninspired directing, and the deficient acting, itís mercifully short at 80 minutes. There are some cute lines. The ambience of Paris is captured fairly well. Thatís about all I can say on the plus side.

June 18, 2004

The End