Monday, July 12, 2004

Another Thing of Beauty

If I were hard-pressed by my readership to create a Top Five Movies of 2004, thusfar it would look a little something like this:

5. Harry Potter 3 OR Shrek 2
4. Spiderman 2
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Kill Bill Volume 2

So far, not so good. Three sequels? Is this the best Hollywood can do? I mean, don't get me wrong, they're all great films (or at least really good). But so many sequels.

It's true, 2004 is the year of the "hit sequel", more so than the past. The year that a sequel becomes the highest grossing animated movie ever. The year that another sequel has the highest opening weekend ever (or something of that sort).

Movie critics have often lambasted this trend of mining for more monetary success by rehashing a story and slapping a "2" behind the title (hello "Scooby Doo 2"? what idiot begged for THAT to happen?). And normally I would join in the chorus. But as my list thusfar illustrates, there have actually been some really really good sequels released this year.

Which is why I have to admit, with a little trepidation, that my favorite movie so far this year is a sequel as well.

On Friday, I drove to the only theater in town showing it, and watched "Before Sunset."

Holy crap, what a beautiful movie.

Set nine years after the cult-hit "Before Sunrise" (which was made, um, nine years ago), this story picks up, not where the last one left off, but where the characters have ended up. If you don't recall the story from the first movie, go rent it, because it's awesome. If you're lazy, here's a brief wrap-up: American wanderer Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets French college student Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train headed for Vienna, and talks her into getting off the train in Vienna and spending the evening with him walking around the city. The two fresh-faced youths talk all night long (or almost) and begin to fall in love, until the next train out of Vienna leaves at around (big shock) sunrise. At the end of the film, the two promise to meet again in Vienna in six months, and in true romantic form, refuse to exchange contact information, leaving their combined futures in the hands of Fate.

And that's how it ended, frustrating and enthralling the viewers. The film wasn't a commercial success in the U.S., but gradually found a viewership on home video, and has since been elevated to the upper echelons of 90's indie-film esteem.

So now, almost a decade later, indie-fave director Richard Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have reunited and written another chapter in the story of these two star-crossed lovers.

To avoid spoilers, I'll limit my description of the story to this: the two are reunited by a little "fate" and a little action on the part of Celine, and spend about an hour together walking around Paris and catching up. But once again, they are under a deadline--Jesse's plane leaves in an hour. So they go through the typical "how have you been, what have you been up to" formalities that two former friends and lovers would, but then their conversation becomes gradually more personal and honest. So much so that at one point of the movie, I felt a little uncomfortable, because I felt that i was eavesdropping on a private conversation that was none of my business.

It's this raw honesty that really makes the film wonderful. That, and its acknowledgement that people change. The two idealistic youths who discussed growing older as an abstract concept in "Sunrise" are starting to accept it as concrete reality in "Sunset." And they also have to face that idea that fairytale love can't take place in a complicated reality. How's it complicated? Just watch for Jesse's left hand.

As the viewer, you know that the film has to end, which translates into the eventuality that Jesse has to leave, if he wants to make his flight. This tension mounts in the film, as the characters realize that time is passing for them too, in the microcosm of that afternoon as well as in the grander scale of their lives.

And the last scene of the film is so good. Because it's simple on the surface, but complicated beneath. There were some gasps in the audience as the credits rolled. So good.

Amazing work from all involved. Julie Delpy contributes three original songs to the soundtrack. There's almost a sense of meta-narrative concerning Hawke's character. The few jabs at America/Americanism are understated or, in some cases, deserved. (She says, "I'm glad you're not one of those 'freedom fries' Americans." But he later calls her a Communist because her cat's named Che and she spent time in pre-Fall Eastern Europe. So the political dialogue is generally light.) I've read some reviews that compare the themes in this film to some of the themes in Lost in Translation. I can see where they're making the connection. Yeah, it's pretty much that good.

Overall, it's an absolute beauty. If you're so inclined and the scandalous dialogue won't offend you, go see it. Drive four hours to see it. It's only 80 minutes long, but not a minute is wasted.

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