July 24, 2013

Before Sunrise to Sunset to Midnight — The Chemistry of Connection

dvd revI knew, the first time I saw Before Sunrise, that here was a film for which I felt not only interest or admiration but love; a film I would want to revisit repeatedly over the years; one that would join the short list of films that remain constant favourites.

Robin Wood in Cine-Action (1996)

I have a low tolerance for uninformed superlatives like the one casually inflicted on readers by David Brooks in a recent column to wit, “As every discerning person knows, The Searchers is the greatest movie ever made.” I still ask myself, “Is he kidding?” It’s not even the greatest western, let alone John Ford’s greatest western. So just please stop it with the greatest this and the greatest that, okay?

But here I am writing about something truly great. What to do? I decided to let the late Robin Wood (1931-2009), one of the few film critics I respect, say it for me, though I’m not sure that I agree with him that Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise belongs all by itself with “the dozen or so films that exemplify ‘cinema’ at its finest.” But put it together with Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight, which was all too briefly at the Garden not long ago, and I’m on board. I’ll even go him one better and say that the saga of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is a historic accomplishment, a classic that will still be shown and loved long after the blockbusters and Academy faves of today and yesterday and tomorrow are forgotten.

Sadly, Robin Wood died without seeing Before Midnight. Writing in 2005, he could only wonder, as did everyone, whether the story of Celine and Jesse would continue: “Linklater’s artistic integrity as a filmmaker is really on the line.” What will he do next? Maybe the story was “too fragile to pursue any further into the wilds of time and history.”

In fact, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy pursued the story all the way to the sunny wilds of Greece and have brought back Before Midnight, a triumphant affirmation of “artistic integrity” on all fronts. When the new film comes out on DVD, viewers will be able to watch the whole epic romance from sunrise to sunset to midnight, and wonder “How did they do it?”


Any film worth seeing benefits from the chemistry between the actors or between actors and director, actors and screenplay. But Linklater’s films are about chemistry, which is what Ethan Hawke seems to be getting at in a 2007 Guardian interview when he says that Chekhov would like Before Sunset “because it’s all about nuance … it’s completely fluid, just chasing the nuance of life, and kind of believing whatever God is lives in this kind of energy that flows between all of us.”

Hawke is close to echoing what Delpy’s Celine says to his Jesse in Before Sunrise: “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between.”

If you read enough interviews with Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater, you’ll notice a definite overlap between things said in “real life” and things said in character. What Celine says next speaks to the interface between imagination and reality that these three films live in so productively: “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.”

Which could also mean the filmic magic of connecting and sharing, character to character, actor to character, actor to actor, actor to director.


When Hawke and Delpy were making Before Sunrise, they were concerned about all the dialogue, asking Linklater “Shouldn’t it at least be funny? Is this boring?” In a recent conversation on reddit.com, Hawke remembers Linklater telling them that “he’d never been in a helicopter crash, he’d never been involved in any espionage, he’d never been to Outer Space, and yet his life felt full of drama. And the most dramatic thing that ever happened to him was the experience of truly connecting with another person. And he really wanted to try to make a movie about that, about that connection, about that exchange of energy, ideas.”

Before Sunrise opens on a train between Budapest and Vienna as the noise made by a squabbling married couple (definitely some negative chemistry) drives Celine to move to a seat where she can read in peace. Jesse is sitting reading across the aisle. Given the battle coming 18 years later between the 40-something Jesse and Celine in Before Midnight, there’s an ironic resonance in knowing that the first thing these two strangers talk about is a fighting middle-aged couple. After a conversation in the dining car that moves like music (the more they play, the more they connect), they get off together in Vienna and fall in love during a night walking around the city, where they encounter a couple of actors, a palm reader, a trusting bartender, and a panhandler who composes poems to order. Before going their separate ways, they agree to meet in Vienna in six month’s time; he shows up, she doesn’t. In the nine years that follow, Jesse gets married, has a child, and writes a novel based on that night in Vienna, and as Before Sunset begins, he’s answering questions after a reading at a bookshop in Paris (Shakespeare and Company, itself an enduring symbol of the literary connection between the U.S. and France). When he’s asked what made him write the novel, he repeats almost verbatim what Linklater said about the genesis of the film (another example of real-life/film-life overlap), the helicopter crash, Outer Space, “connecting with another person.” A minute later he looks to the side and there’s Celine.

A Night in Philadelphia

The connection Linklater had in mind when he was explaining the dynamic of Before Sunrise to his actors happened by chance in October 1989. Jesse and Celine’s night in Vienna is based on a night in Philadelphia. Although Linklater has spoken about his American Celine in interviews after the release of Before Midnight, he first mentioned her in 1997 to a freelance reporter for the Allentown Pa. Morning Call: “The whole plot for Before Sunrise was inspired by a woman I met in Philadelphia. I was just hanging out with my sister, who used to live near Rittenhouse Square, and I met this woman at a toy store. I just got to talking to her and then we went out later and hung out the whole night.” Linklater recently described her to The Times of London as “crazy, cute, wonderful energy.” According to a Q&A podcast with Jeff Goldsmith, Linklater admitted that “even as that experience was going on … I was like, ‘I’m gonna make a film about this.’ And she was like, ‘What ‘this’? What’re you talking about?’ And I was like, ‘Just this. This feeling. This thing that’s going on between us.’”

Just as Jesse wrote a novel about their night together, hoping that it might bring Celine back into his life, Linklater thought Before Sunrise might bring Celine’s inspiration back into his. But there was no sequel to Linklater’s story. Around the time Before Sunrise opened, the woman, Amy Lehrhaupt, was killed in a motorcycle accident; she was 24. Linklater found out about it only three years ago. Before Midnight is dedicated to her memory.

Another woman key to the realization of Linklater’s vision is Kim Krizan, with whom he collaborated on the screenplay. Once Hawke and Delpy were cast, they began contributing to the dialogue, though they were not credited until Before Sunset, for which they shared a Best Screenplay Academy Award nomination with Linklater and Krizan. In recent interviews, Delpy and Hawke stress the fact that a key factor in Linklater’s decision to cast them was that both were also writers. (Hawke, who grew up in Princeton, will have a new novel out, his third, within a year.)

Making Music

I’ll say it again: as blockbusters come and go, Celine and Jesse will be remembered and revered, for there’s really nothing in cinema quite like the inspired counterpoint played out between Delpy and Hawke. One of the greatest movies ever made about a couple, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, was subtitled A Song of Two Humans, which would not be a bad fit for the word-music of Celine and Jessie, as they riff, spar, solo, and jam, two players so intricately attuned, their timing so uncanny, never stiff, forced, stylized or confined: even when one speaks over the other, they’re in tune, harmonics and dissonance in a deceptively effortless interplay that feels improvised and truly lived even though every line is scripted, thought out, debated, and thoroughly rehearsed.

You could compare these three films to any number of brilliantly played and directed conversation-centered projects, like Ma Nuit Chez Maud and other works by Erich Rohmer, or, most obviously, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, but Hawke and Delphy perform on another level, possessed of an identification with their characters that is downright eerie. Acting is acting in Rohmer and Bergman: people playing parts. Delpy and Hawke are so deeply invested in Celine and Jesse that even as they’re acting their hearts out it doesn’t show. Though they work closely with Linklater, almost as if he were an invisible third actor, their alter egos Celine and Julie have transcended them; as both have observed, the characters inhabit a parallel universe spanning two decades, waiting to be inhabited and brought back to life on film by their writer actors.

When Jesse and Celine finally begin to say what needs to be said in the back of the chauffeur-driven car toward the end of Before Sunset you can already hear the music of the last movement. As Celine puts her arms around Jesse before they go up to her flat, saying “I want to see if you stay together or if you dissolve into molecules,” she’s picking up on something he said minutes before (“I feel like if someone touched me I’d dissolve into molecules”). This is how it works. Maybe Delpy came up with that line or maybe the actress knew, with the character, that the hug had to happen, if only to reprise and resolve, like a motif in music, the moment in the car when her feeling for Jesse as he lamented his lot was so strong that she kept reaching to touch him and drawing back.

The scene in the hotel room in Before Midnight explodes like a climactic demonstration of the positive/negative energy of connection flowing between them. While these two no-longer-young lovers may be struggling and despairing in middle age, it’s clear that Hawke and Delpy are enjoying each other in the fire of the moment as much as they did when they were talking about reincarnation in Vienna or astrology and fate or Nina Simone in Paris. Even when they’re fighting they’re making music.

Let’s end it in Greece, as Celine and Jesse watch the sun disappear below the horizon. “Still there,” says Celine. “Still there. Still there. Gone.”

Multiple copies of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are available at the Princeton Public Library.