I couldn’t help but think of “My Dinner With Andre” as we watched “Before Sunset” at Salem’s one and only artsy film theatre, Salem Cinema. “Before Sunset” is almost non-stop conversation between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Appropriately, and as she usually does, the Salem Cinema proprietor came into the theatre to talk about the movie before it started, one of the many things I like about how she runs her business.
Currently two movies are being shown concurrently, so she also plugged “The Story of the Weeping Camel.” Glancing at the small audience she said to a couple, “Welcome back. You saw the other movie this afternoon, didn’t you? How did you like it?” What a welcome respite Salem Cinema is from the other impersonal corporate over-priced-popcorn theatres in our town (a.k.a. Regal).
As much as I like action flicks, I also liked the non-action of “Before Sunset.” It’s remarkable how Jesse and Celine talk to each other in such a natural way throughout the film’s 80 minutes. Roger Ebert says that “Hawke and Delpy wrote the screenplay themselves, beginning from the characters and dialogue created the first time around by [director Richard] Linklater and Kim Krizan.”
This helps to explain how the movie almost never feels like a movie. It seems like a camera is simply filming a real life encounter: two people who meet in Paris after spending a single romantic day (and night) together nine years ago, the subject of “Before Sunrise” (1995), which I haven’t seen.
You don’t need to have seen “Before Sunrise” to enjoy “Before Sunset.” Flashbacks and dialogue fill you in on what happened between Jesse and Celine the first time around. Now they’re nine years older and need to re-establish their connection. By talking. And talking. And then talking some more. In a bookstore. On Paris streets. In a coffeehouse. On a boat. In a car. In her apartment.
With so much emphasis on physical attraction in most movies, it’s refreshing to see a film that focuses on mind-melding instead. When Laurel and I first met, that’s what I loved most about our nascent relationship: how we could talk for hours about this and that. I had recently gotten out of an eighteen year marriage where, for the last decade or so, communication with my first wife was pretty much limited to trivialities.
I was starving for serious talk by the time Laurel and I got together, so Jesse’s infatuation with the words that come out of Celine’s lips was completely believable to me. Jesse is married, but not happily. Like I was, he is trapped in a relationship of surfaces, appearances, conventionality. That’s more frustrating than bad sex. You can have pretty satisfying sex with yourself, but you can’t have a satisfying conversation with yourself.
Not that Jesse is content solely with enjoying Celine’s psyche. He lusts after her body also. But you get the impression that if Jesse had to choose between spending a night making love to Celine and making talk with Celine, he’d engage in the latter.
Laurel liked how neither actor had bright white teeth, a real life quality rarely seen in American movies. European films are much more comfortable showing actors as people usually look. “Before Sunset” shares this willingness to reveal unattractive features of Jesse and Celine.
It was sort of shocking to watch them go into the Paris coffeehouse and walk past patrons puffing away on cigarettes. It was even more shocking to see Celine and Jesse light up some cancer sticks themselves and smoke them with obvious relish. They weren’t even villains! I thought only losers, lowlifes, psychos, and criminals smoked in movies. But then, I mostly watch American films.
Celine, a French girl, tells Jesse that she spent some of the past nine years living in the United States. But since they didn’t exchange any personal information other than their first names when they spent their one day together, it wasn’t possible for them to meet up.
Talking about Americana, Celine observes that she couldn’t stand how people speak so superficially in this country: “How are you?” “Great! How are you?” “Couldn’t be better.” “Well, nice talking with you. Bye.” “Bye.” She tells Jesse that in Paris everybody says they are sad. But at least they’re honest.
Give me truthful sadness over fake smiley faces anytime. Laurel said that a friend told her about some Salem students who recently returned from studying in Europe. They would get depressed when they visited downtown Salem because it was so lifeless compared to European cities. Viewing the Parisian street scenes in “Before Sunset” brings home how much we could benefit by emulating the French way of living.
Sadly, though, a disturbing number of Americans wanted to eat “Freedom Fries” around the start of the Iraq war. I don’t think they’ll be lining up to see “Before Sunset,” but they should.