I confess I was prejudiced against this movie from its opening scene, set in the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris, the single most overrated literary emporium on planet Earth. Walk in and you find a cramped little shop smug on its own mythology, stocked almost as much with self-publicity as with literature. At the till is some floppy-locked tosser ostentatiously reading poetry, and sleeping upstairs are a handful of rich kids on a six-week quest to become Henry Miller. The clientele are much the same -- posers, charlatans, tourists, wannabes, people speaking in loud Boston drawls. It's the kind of bookshop that makes me want to burn books.
It's in these surroundings that we first meet American writer Jesse something (Ethan Hawke), who is on the Paris leg of his European book tour. His book is a semi-autobiographical bestseller about a youthful one-night romance he had nine years previously -- the same romance depicted in Linklater's Before Sunrise(1995), to which this movie is a sequel. (How nice for Linklater that his story has become a bestseller!) Jesse is being interviewed by two journalists. The attractive female one asks him if the lovers of his book were destined for a life of happiness together, or whether it was just one-night stand. Jesse throws the question back at them, saying it's a test of whether one is at heart a romantic or a cynic. The hot chick journalist thinks it was true love; the gruff baldy guy doesn't. And later on, the audience are invited to line up behind them and take sides, as Jesse gets the chance to renew his old romance. Will it be for real this time? Was it for real last time? Will the cynic or the romantic prevail?
So the theory goes anyway. In reality, cynics need not hang around for the 80 minutes of mush that follow. Jesse spots Celine (Julie Delpy), his old love, in the shop window: she was intrigued by his book, and came along to meet him. He has to go soon, but in the short time available before his flight, they wander the streets of Paris, visit a cafe, take a boat ride. From the start, their conversation is fluent and breathless. They talk about their love affair nine years ago. They had agreed to meet in Vienna six months afterwards; he went, she couldn't make it. They reflect on how they almost met each other in New York. They begin to open up, exchanging their coffee-table philosophies on various things. He visited a monastery once and found it inspiring; she visited Eastern Europe and it cleared and focused her mind. They both agree how dull the world would be without a sense of magic, and misquote Einstein while they're at it. As the minutes pass by, their conversation gets more intimate. He's stuck in an unhappy marriage. She's had a string of loveless relationships. The only time they've ever felt true love was on that one night they met. They wonder what might have been, and what happened to their youthful feelings. They touch or almost touch a few times. They end up in her apartment, where she sings him a song about their night in Vienna. He stays just long enough for a blow job and gets the next flight back to Dallas. Okay, I made that last bit up.
Last week, as it happens, I had a vaguely similar experience to the characters in this film -- which is to say, I spent a day strolling around a beautiful European city with a girl who looks like Julie Delpy. So I'm in awe of the way the characters managed to do this and talk incessantly all the while, and what's more, talk for 80 minutes without saying anything remotely interesting. More than anything else while watching this film, I wished Jesse and Celine would shut the fuck up. The belief that you have to fill every spare second with chatter is neurotic. Conversation is great, true, but silence can also be beautiful. Part of the joy of being with someone you love is in simply being.
The dialogue is non-stop inanity. There's nothing profound going on here: it's tame, second-rate, mediocre stuff, short on ideas. We've heard it all before. The meditations on love and relationships and lost youth are particularly old hat: drop the Kincaid index a notch or two and it's pure Nora Ephron. I suppose a lot of people of a certain age tend to romanticise a youthful relationship and wonder what might have been, and that for them this movie is a kind of catharsis. It's wish-fulfillment; it lets them indulge in a sentimental dream. Fair enough, but cinematic sentimentality is hardly in short supply, and neither is thirtysomething self-pity. The world could do with much less of both.
Celine and Jesse are the kind of nice middle-class types who would make the world a better place if they could only be the only people in it. Despite Jesse's unhappy marriage, for example, he is a devoted father who would do anything for his little son. And as for Celine, she's a full-time professional activist for worthy causes, working tirelessly to make a real difference in some area or other. She even spends a few sentences talking about the awful state of the world. It's lucky the characters tell us what caring and giving people they are, because in the movie itself they don't do a thing that isn't 100% selfish. Look at the way they (and the film) treat the taxi driver who is supposed to take Jesse to the airport. This taxi driver spends a few seconds fumbling at the start of the film, costing Jesse valuable Celine-time -- what an insensitive clod! And at the end of the movie he's left in Celine's driveway waiting for the lovers to do whatever it is they're going to do. I wonder how he feels about that? Actually, does he have any feelings or loves himself? Who cares -- he's just a pleb, and he's probably never been inside a monastery.
For all their talk, and the nine years of resonance between them, there isn't a lot of chemistry between Jesse and Celine. Part of the blame must go to the performances. Hawke and Delpy clearly put a lot of effort into this picture, and it shows, and that's not a good thing. They're always acting, acting, acting. There's a studied drama-school spontaneity about their interruptions, their inspirations, their banter -- it's too slick, it's never convincing. Delpy, it must be said, is an attractive performer, and the nine-year-old flashbacks to Before Sunrise remind me that she was once a seriously attractive performer. She's gone a bit drawn and stringy since then, a bit too thin; throughout the film I kept wishing that she would talk less and eat more. Hawke, on the other hand, has aged in the way a plastic figurine ages. They might as well have flashed all the way back to Dead Poets Society.
For the really exciting chemistry to take place, you need different elements in the mix, and Jesse and Celine are just too goddamn similar. They have the same voice with the same cadences, the same sense of humour, the same attitudes. They could quite easily fill in each other's lines. This is not a sign of two soulmates made for each other, but of screenwriters who couldn't come up with two different characters. It's hard to believe that three people worked on the screenplay. While the dialogue never quite hits the onanistic depths of Kevin Smith, at times it sounds like the imaginary girlfriend conversation conjured up by a guy on a date with his mirror.
Before Sunset is an 'independent film', and whenever I see this phrase I wonder what I should expect of independent cinema. Surely it should be something more than just studio product done on the cheap. To be blunt, I think independent cinema should always be a protest against Hollywood cinema; it should deal with ideas that the big studios wouldn't go near, with issues so controversial that an accountant would never approve them. Where is the protest in Before Sunset? It does have a certain liberal attitude -- it's pro-France, pro-literacy, and pro-love, and its characters acknowledge that there is some benefit in spending time away from consumer society (though, as they stress, that doesn't make them communists). Maybe this is enough to mark one out as a screaming pinko under the Bush administration. But that's about it as far as protest goes. Ultimately, Before Sunset is a fairly tame and conformist work, with a lot of sympathy for middle-class lives and middle-class loves, and bugger all sympathy for anything else.