The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Chris Wisniewski on Before Sunset
At the beginning of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse answers questions at a book signing in Paris. He doesn’t realize it, but Celine (Julie Delpy), the radiant Frenchwoman with whom he spent one enchanted evening in Vienna some nine years ago in Sunset’s predecessor Before Sunrise, watches him from a corner. Jesse shares an idea he has for a novel that takes place during the span of a single pop song: A thirtysomething father watches his five-year-old daughter climb onto a table to dance, and he’s transported back to the night he lost his virginity at the age of 16. He sees his girlfriend dance to the same song on the roof of her car and realizes then that “inside every moment is another moment happening simultaneously,” that “time is a lie.”
As Jessie waxes philosophical about the illusion of time, Linklater cuts to images of Hawke and Delpy from the previous film, moving between then and now with seamless elegance. These flashbacks make it clear that Jesse is partly right and partly wrong. This moment in the bookstore does indeed contain the earlier moment inside of it; it is pregnant with the past. Though he's never been the sort of director to indulge in too much temporal trickery, Linklater's well aware of the power montage has to twist our perception of time: A series of cuts, fades, and dissolves can compress and extend time or take us forward or backward through it. Despite the flashbacks, Before Sunset mostly unfolds in a series of long, sequential takes that give the impression of real time. Here, the most pointed cutting in the film—and, perhaps, Linklater’s entire oeuvre—doesn't transport us back to that earlier moment so much as it draws our attention to the nine years that stand between then and now. Hawke’s weathered face and Delpy’s thin, knowing beauty are physical evidence of the time that's passed. When he finally notices Celine, Jesse becomes distracted, and he seems less sure of himself. Her presence betrays an irrefutable truth: time isn’t a lie after all.
Before Sunrise was a swooning, late-adolescent romantic fantasy—sweet, lovely, and perhaps a little necessarily contrived. As Jesse and Celine first reunite in Sunset, wandering to a small café for a late afternoon coffee, their mildly playful flirtation portends more of the same. They joke of American imperialism and horny monks. She reflects on her teenage travels to communist Warsaw, expressing a reserved fondness for the intellectual clarity her gloomy surroundings brought her. He winningly mocks her for the hint of nostalgia she expresses for the Eastern bloc. At first, Before Sunset has the casual feel of a welcome retread, an opportunity to spend a few more hours with these two hyper-intellectual, hyper-articulate neurotics as they meet-cute again, this time in Paris on a beautiful sunny day. The movie revisits and essentially reenacts the romantic fantasy of Before Sunrise, delivering the simple pleasures we crave—updates on what happened to the characters after their first encounter, smart and jaunty banter, and a crisp, intoxicating sexual and romantic energy. At the same time, it reveals itself to be something far more meaningful and wholly unexpected: a melancholic contemplation of missed opportunity and an ambivalent reflection on what it means to get older.
In what's basically one extended 80-minute conversation, Sunset's acutely self-aware and believably damaged protagonists execute an elaborate pas de deux. Jesse and Celine progress from superficial catching-up about careers and New York living to the more intimate territory of sexual frustration, romantic disillusionment, and death. As they talk, it's obvious that Jesse desperately wants her, and Celine appears to feed off of his naked desire, baiting him and then pushing him away, letting her guard down a little more after each push. In a typical exchange, she asks what he would do if they learned they had only one day to live, and he suggests an afternoon of love-making. A few minutes later, she subtly rebukes him for his come-on by matter-of-factly mentioning that she read about his wife and child (the first time we discover this as viewers), diffusing the lingering erotic energy with disconcerting—and obviously premeditated—cunning.
Theirs is a delicate power struggle. He's written a best-selling book about her and come to Paris married and a father. Despite her warmth and good humor, she appears to resent the way he's co-opted their shared memory and spun it into literary success, admitting that she was both flattered and disturbed to read a book about herself. She undermines the novel with tepid praise ("It's very romantic, and I usually don't like that . . . but it's very well-written"), then a half-serious attack on its veracity, asserting (falsely) that they never had sex in Vienna. He buys more time with her—insisting on a coffee, then a walk, then a boat ride, then a car ride, and, finally, a trip up to her apartment. Each time he suggests another activity, Celine reminds him that he needs to get to the airport. For most of the film, the characters are performing for each other—he, to win her over with his honesty and affection, she to demonstrate the extent to which she doesn’t need that affection, without betraying how much she still cares. Celine only fully drops the pretense after he exposes himself completely by confessing that he doesn't love his wife.
Though Hawke and Delpy retain the effortless chemistry that made Before Sunrise such a joy, their characters have lost the naive romantic optimism they had in the earlier film. There is something rather sad in the way Jesse and Celine obsess about their night in Vienna. Each has turned the other into an idealized memory and a symbol of the elusive romantic love they both fear they've outgrown. "I remember that night better than I do whole years," Jesse admits. "Me too," Celine responds. Rather than letting the night go, treating it as at best a missed opportunity, at worst an illusion, they've both channeled it into their creative work: He wrote a book about it; she made it into a song. Their reunion doesn't dredge up the past so much as it lays bare their loneliness and their cynicism. Yet the connection between Jesse and Celine remains palpable, and it seems to stir residual hope that their story together isn't finished, that they can somehow reclaim whatever it is they've lost through their intense connection with one another. This is what makes Linklater’s relentless real-time approach so effective. As they bask in the pleasure of each other's company, we, as viewers, are constantly aware of time slipping away from them. Jesse will get on a plane. Celine will go back to her day-to-day. Once their time together is over, they'll return to the reality of their adult lives.
In this sense, the ending of the film doesn't resolve the questions it poses. They climb the stairs to her apartment, sip tea, and listen to Nina Simone. "Baby, you are going to miss that plane," Celine tells him. "I know," Jesse concedes, as Before Sunset fades to black. It's exhilarating, because they get a reprieve. Because we don't have to see it end. We can freeze them in a moment where they're still hanging on to the fantasy that their Parisian reverie can last forever. And it's a relief, because neither they, nor we, need to deal with what comes next, the complications and repercussions of their adulterous indiscretion. The moment is pure and perfect, a gift to the film's characters and its audience, but it is also fleeting. Time, as Linklater has spent about an hour and a half reminding us, marches on.
Linklater's interest in time is nothing new. His long takes and elegant tracking shots reflect his longstanding preoccupation with the concept of cinematic realism, and he previously experimented with a real-time narrative in 2001's Tape. Here, though, Linklater's theoretical interests align perfectly with his film's premise. In its technical precision, its loose, meandering dialogue-heavy structure, and its focus on self-conscious, aging Gen-Xers as they grapple with issues both mundane and profoundly philosophical, Before Sunset may be the perfect Linklater movie. But it isn't his alone. The movie belongs as much to his co-screenwriters Hawke and Delpy, who even seem to draw on their own biographies for each of their characters (Delpy, like Celine, went to NYU; Hawke, whose Jesse finds himself in a loveless marriage with the mother of his child, would go on to divorce then-wife Uma Thurman shortly after the film's release). "Isn't any [work of art] autobiographical?" Jesse wonders at the beginning of the film, perhaps preparing the audience for the raw confessional honesty of his and Delpy's performances. Linklater's long takes give the two of them the space they need to play off each other, to establish a propulsive rhythm with the film's heady dialogue and to react to one another physically. In one shot, Hawke pulls Delpy to a park bench and sets her on his lap, a sweeping gesture that suggests everything both endearing and pathetic about his character—his adoration and his desperation. At first she smiles, but then she stiffens, making plain her attraction and her reticence in a magnificently precise bit of physical acting. Later, while riding in a car, Jesse tells Celine about his nightmares. He doesn't realize it, but she reaches out to touch him, then pulls her hand away. It's a devastating moment. Hawke lets himself emote; Delpy, whose performance in this film is nothing short of sublime, lets herself respond; and Linklater has the good sense to just let the camera roll.
Thanks to the improvisational feel of its central performances, there's a deceiving spontaneity in Before Sunset, but the movie is no less technically rigorous than the more self-consciously deliberate and controlled films by the Dardenne brothers and Alfonso Cuarón that have also made this best-of-the-decade list. Too often, even the finest realist films, despite the theoretical commitment and the exacting formal stringency of their makers, come off as calculated. In stripping away techniques and elements that produce the impression of artifice, the greatest of neorealist masterpieces can still end up drawing attention to those few artificial details that remain—a contrived plot twist, a symbolically loaded element of mise-en-scène, an actorly performance. Writing about Bicycle Thieves, André Bazin famously asserted that everything in the film seemed to happen by chance—Ricci could easily get his bike back, in which case, the film would simply end. But of course we know that's not the case. Bicycle Thieves must unfold as it does, otherwise there would be no film—it must, inevitably, feel a bit "written." Before Sunset may or may not be worthy of the comparison to De Sica's masterwork, but it does have that elusive quality Bazin described: thanks largely to Hawke and Delpy, Jesse and Celine seem to be authoring the film’s reality themselves. In the hands of less charming or committed performers, their exchanges would seem solipsistic. Instead, the movie achieves something to which almost every realist film aspires and few attain: emotional authenticity.
Before Sunset may be the most written about movie in the still-brief history of this publication. Since many Reverse Shot writers are just a few years younger than Jesse and Celine, the reasons for the film’s galvanizing appeal are rather obvious. We were old enough to have appreciated the earnest intensity of Sunrise and its protagonists when that movie came out but young enough to buy into its starry-eyed idealism. And Sunset, with its jaded, desperate longing, expressed with expert grace, speaks directly to a generation of cinephiles who now find themselves with both feet planted in that strange and terrifying territory called adulthood. Like Jesse and Celine, we clung to our idealized memory of their night together and the romantic hope for the future it seemed to hold, but they—and we—grew up.
For me, the film's become a personal touchstone. There were other movies this decade that touched me more deeply, or felt more significant and accomplished. But none means more to me. As I've made my way through my late twenties, experiencing romantic love and unexpected death for the first time, the film's clear-eyed view of adulthood has grown more resonant. In describing his writing process, Jesse concedes, "We all see the world through our own tiny keyhole." He might as well be talking about the experience of reading, listening, or watching.
I revisit Before Sunset at least once a year, usually on Valentine's Day. My partner and I are aware of the irony of commemorating a day that celebrates the idea of romance with a film that deconstructs that ideal, even as it valorizes it. Every time I watch Before Sunset, though, the irony seems more pronounced. Movies don’t change, but people do. When we come back to a film, we remember our first impression—what it meant to us then and why—but we also reconsider it. We triangulate. The first time I saw Before Sunset, I was ecstatic, punch-drunk on a Parisian love story that restored my faith in the possibility of connecting with another person. With subsequent viewings, the movie's gotten sadder. Jesse's still trying a little too hard. Celine's still resisting a little too much. They still want so badly to recover something that they've lost. They want to make their time together last forever, but the moment is always slipping past them, just out of reach.
More on Before Sunset from Reverse Shot.
"The End of the Affair," by Kristi Mitsuda (Summer 2006)
"Old Haunts," by Suzanne Scott (Summer 2004)
"Mortal Beloved," by Michael Joshua Rowin (Summer 2004)
"A Confused Love Letter," by Matt Plouffe (Summer 2004)
"Love Me Tonight": Erik Syngle on Before Sunrise (Summer 2004)