Before Sunset (5/5)
In the song, “Periodically Double or Triple lead singer of Yo La Tengo, Ira Kaplan, opens with the line, “I’ve never read Proust/Seems a little too long.” In this bit of understatement, Kaplan touches upon the sacrifices of time. We only have so many years, so we must make certain decisions about what we will and will not do to fill up those years. It’s no coincidence that Proust himself was concerned with the paradoxes of time. The past, in Proust’s work, is always in a dialectic relationship with the present—that is, it never leaves us and it is always filtered through the now. Of course, I’ve never actually read Proust. As Kaplan suggested, it seems pretty long. I’ve made the decision that, at least up until now, I don’t want to invest my time in Proust. And yet, at the same time I would genuinely feel sorry for someone who hasn’t read The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, The Sound and the Fury, Slaughterhouse Five, Moby Dick, The Sun Also Rises, along with a whole host of other classics before his or her time is up. So we all must make choices.
I bring all of this up because the movie Before Sunset is all about the passage of time and how the choices we make preclude certain avenues in our lives. Taking place nine years after the events of Before Sunrise, Sunset reunites Jessie and Celine, two young lovers who had spent a single night together in Vienna before vanishing from each others’ lives. Jessie has written a book, the plot of which suspiciously echoes the events of Vienna, and because his press tour takes him through Paris, he has one more chance to walk around a beautiful European city conversing with Celine about life, the universe, and everything. But this time there’s even more of a time constraint. Jessie has to leave in an hour and a half if he wants to catch his plane. The choice to limit the amount of time Jessie and Celine spend together and to shoot the film in real time only further stresses the finite nature of the moment and the importance of the decisions we make.
Naturally, nine years have changed Jessie and Celine. Jessie finds himself in a damaged marriage with a son whom he adores but a wife whom he never really loved. Celine works in an environmental non-profit, but she has never fully committed to any single relationship over the years. In many ways these two characters are immensely successful for their age. Celine might still worry about the state of the world, but she works for a company that makes real changes. Jessie has published a book that is potentially successful enough to warrant a promotional engagement at Shakespeare and Company. And yet in their personal life they’ve found a nearly inexplicable lack. The question, of course, is if they hadn’t parted nine years ago, would they feel this way?
At one point, Celine says, “Memory is a wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past.” There’s a sense throughout the film that both Jessie and Celine have romanticized their night together as a means of avoiding their present day problems. Their night in Vienna has become, in its own peculiar way, preserved in amber, and any relationship since then has to compete with that refraction of a memory. This dialogue with the past occurs throughout the film, and I myself had a similar situation watching this film. When first watching it many years ago, I thought the movie was about how people become disillusioned as they get older, but upon multiple viewings since, I now think it’s about how questions of what could have been can seem like an escape pod for whatever presses upon us in the now. Even Celine claims, “Maybe we would have hated each other eventually.” Celine and Jessie want the relationship they had nine years ago, but they don’t want to necessarily put in the work. In fact, over the years the characters have become more romantic. In the first film, they had to fight against their 90s cynicism, but here they are more open to the possibilities that finding the right person can fix what’s wrong with their world.
The principle characters involved with this film have really done the impossible. They have made a sequel that is arguably deeper than the original (and I say this as someone who whole heartedly loves the original). But what’s more, Sunset complicates its predecessor. Hollywood cinema is filled with movies about couples who meet, overcome obstacles and fall deeply in love. But no one, it seems, wants to engage with the long term consequences of monogamy. Sunset only touches upon some of these issues (which they will hopefully get to in the third chapter), but it does present us with something that’s incredibly rare in American cinema: two likable, engaging people genuinely dealing with growing older and understanding the impact of life’s choices.