Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

15 June 2013

Celine and Jesse Redux

The first thought that occurred to me after seeing Before Midnight (2013) was what a luxury it is that a film like this even exists: a luxury for director Richard Linklater, born of his ability to work with dedicated actors and on a low-enough budget to make the kind of movies that can take the time to explore -- really explore -- the complexities of human relationships; a luxury for two fine and serious actors to develop their characters over the course of their relationship; and a luxury for the viewer to walk the streets of Vienna, Paris, and the Peloponnese beside them, to watch Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) change and mature along the bumpy road of their distinctly non-Hollywood romance. 
Before Sunrise
Celine and Jesse's story begins in Before Sunrise (1995), when they meet on a train traveling west from Budapest. They are both young, beautiful, and bright. They strike up a conversation that is intense in the way that everything in life is (or at least should be) intense when one is twenty-two and taking on the big and small questions of life, love, and the world in general. Reluctant to say goodbye when the train arrives in Vienna, Jesse spontaneously asks Celine to get off the train with him, and with equal spontaneity, she does. The two wander through that lovely city all night, drinking coffee, debating, and becoming intimate. When morning arrives and Celine must catch her train to Paris, there is a moment in the station that hangs suspended in time as we and they wonder if this is it -- one beautiful moment to remember for a lifetime -- or if these two young lovers will ever meet again. They don't exchange phone numbers, but they hurriedly make the decision to meet again in the same spot in six months. We are left to wonder if they ever do, until that question is finally answered nine years later in Before Sunset (2004). 
Before Sunset
The second film is set in Paris, where Jesse has come to Shakespeare and Co. to give a reading of his successful novel, based on his night with Celine. She is in the audience. Although Jesse has only a few hours until he has to catch a flight to New York, the two slip away for a stroll through the winding streets of Paris. We learn that Jesse had returned to Vienna for the proposed rendezvous, but that Celine had been unable to get there. Life goes on, finding them now both in their early thirties, she with a career in humanitarian work, he a successful author with a wife and son. But that one perfect night and a long series of "what-ifs" still connect them to each other, though they have not exchanged a word in nine long years. 

It is that "what-if" that makes these first two films so true and so satisfying for this viewer (and i'm sure for many others as well). Who hasn't had some brief, beautiful encounter and wondered what would have happened if...? It might not have been set in anywhere nearly as romantic as Vienna, or with someone as attractive as Julie Delpy or Ethan Hawke. But there are those moments when you are so young, and so completely open, that you feel like you could share every drop of your being with someone you didn't even know a few hours earlier. You might be in your eighties, looking back at the end of a long, eventful, and satisfying life, and still remember that moment, that person, that feeling, that loss. Richard Linklater was inspired by just such an encounter with a young woman named Amy Lehrhaupt, with whom he spent a night wandering the streets of Philadelphia in 1989. Sadly -- and unbeknownst to Linklater, who had lost contact with her -- Lehrhaupt died in a motorcycle accident shortly before filming began on Before SunriseBefore Midnight is dedicated to her.

Although it answers the big question left hanging at the end of the first film, Before Sunset is not the typically happy and tidy ending to this story. Jesse and Celine are both older and a little more bruised by life; they are beginning to grow into the personalities that were still taking shape in the first film. Yet the feelings they shared in Vienna are still there, and although the consequences of their decision are far more complex than they would have been nine years earlier, they embrace this second chance. Celine caught her train at the end of the first film, but this time Jesse never makes it to the airport for his flight back to New York.
Before Midnight
The ending of Before Sunset is a satisfying one for any romantic. We brush aside the big questions of the family that Jesse leaves behind in New York and the more complicated issue of what it means to be involved in a romance that has been -- for lack of a better word -- romanticized, both privately within the imaginations of the two lovers and publicly in a best-selling novel. But when, after another nine-year interval, we catch up with Celine and Jesse again, this time on a vacation in Greece, they are coping with the consequences of that decision: he with guilt over his son, who lives in Chicago with Jesse's embittered ex-wife; she with frustration over how much of her own life has been put on hold for Jesse's benefit and with her own ambivalence in her role as mother to the couple's twin daughters. They are no longer bursting with youth, independence, and possibilities; they are a middle-aged couple dealing with the problems and irritations that come with a shared life. Before Midnight is both heartbreaking and heartwarming as it explores the repercussions of the choices we make in life. 

For any viewer who has followed this series from the beginning, there is a comfort and familiarity in seeing Delpy and Hawke grow and change over the course of nearly twenty years. How fortunate or prescient of Linklater to choose these two actors for his leads. Not only do they seem to share the director's dedication to this project, but they are both actors with that most rare of qualities: the willingness to age gracefully in front of the camera. Of course, it helps that Delpy is French and therefore presumably immune to Hollywood's compulsion to turn ever actress over thirty-five into some strange waxworks version of her younger self; but when she is on the screen, she is there as a beautiful woman of forty, believable as a character who has shared a life with someone, who has children, has a career, and has to wrestle with the dissatisfactions and self-questioning that come at that stage in life. In short, she and Hawke both feel palpably real in these roles, and have grown more so with each performance.  Celine and Jesse are not always easy to love, but then, who is? And no matter how self-absorbed he might be or how prickly she sometimes is, this is how real people are outside the world of fairy tale endings, and it is impossible not to care about them and hope to run into them another nine years down the road.

02 January 2013

Breaking My Vow of Silence

It's been a rough six months, dear reader, in which i've battled with what i can only describe as a combination of resurgent writer's block and a case of cinephobia, an almost total inability to partake of the thing that most sustains me. Literally months went by without a single trip to the movie theater, an unheard of thing for yours truly. Even in my scruffy youth, i could and would always scrounge up the price of a movie ticket, even if it meant subsisting on a diet of Philly soft pretzels and brown rice. But not lately. Among the few movies that i've gone to see since the start of the fall were Killer Joe, a wonderfully demented little piece of perversity that actually made me start to like Matthew McConaughey again, and Christian Petzold's Barbara, a quietly powerful film that explores the oppressive atmosphere of life in the former East Germany. 

Things are, however, finally looking up: I've been to three of this season's big titles in the past three days and have another week of free time to catch up on a few more. On Sunday, i went to see Les Misérables; yesterday, Life of Pi, and today, Lincoln. Since there are already plenty of well-written, thoughtful reviews of all three films, i won't go into any great detail about them individually. But each film invites a different kind of watching, and that's something that i take great pleasure in. Les Miz is so familiar--is there anyone who hasn't seen at least one stage production of it?--we know all the music and struggle not to burst into song along with the characters at every turn. Hell, some of us have even read the book! But there's a good reason why it is so familiar, why we go back to read/see it again and again: it is one of the world's great stories of suffering humanity, of nobility, and of the possibility of redemption. It is cathartic. It makes us feel better about the human race. Still, such familiarity can be a terrible obstacle for a film, but in this case i found the whole thing very affecting, very moving. I left the theater humming those familiar songs and thinking that maybe this time i should try to tackle the novel in French. I probably won't, but it's nice to feel that inspired.

               Les Misérables Poster
                                              Life of Pi Poster

I was originally pretty skeptical about Life of Pi. I'd read and enjoyed the novel, but hadn't thought of it as especially cinematic; and --gasp!-- it was in 3D. Oh me of little faith! Has Ang Lee ever let me down? Of course he hasn't! I found the film mesmerizing, beautiful, hypnotic, and very hard to put into words. I'm usually turned off by films that seem too effects-driven, but this film used special effects, 3D, and CGI to the most exquisite advantage. I felt like i could have stayed on that lifeboat with Pi and Richard Parker and sailed around the world for years.

Lincoln Poster

I went to see Lincoln primarily for Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, and that was as brilliant as i hoped it would be. But the pleasures of the film went beyond that. Tony Kushner's screenplay is a delight, rich in that kind of zingy nineteenth-century political rhetoric that makes you realize how very dull and plodding most of our politicians are today. The film focuses so specifically on the political maneuvering to abolish slavery through the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that it might easily have become bogged down with the simplistic sanctification of a great moment in history.  Instead it is alive with strategizing, scoundrels, and large moral questions. It is always a good thing when a historical film leaves you wanting to know more, and in the case of Lincoln, i was especially intrigued by the character of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and want to read more about him. One criticism that i feel that i need to make (and i think that many others have expressed a similar opinion) is that the movie goes on for about ten minutes too long. There is the perfect emotional conclusion as we watch Abraham Lincoln leaving the White House on his way to the theater, his back slowly receding until he is no longer there, at which point the audience let out a collective sigh. But then the movie goes on, as though Spielberg doesn't trust his audience to have sufficient grasp of history to know what happens next. And so it continues unnecessarily, showing poor wee Tad in hysterical tears at the news that his father has been shot, showing poor Abe curled up dead in his bed, etc., etc. It's a dull and emotionally deflating ending to an otherwise powerful film.

One final -- perhaps frivolous -- note: Among these three films, i got to see many, many of my favorite actors in supporting roles. Helena Bonham Carter was her usual deliciously frowsy presence as Mme. Thénardier, providing the perfect touch of comic relief in Les Miz. The marvelous Irrfan Khan was a great addition as the adult Pi in Life of Pi (if you haven't seen it yet, check out his performance as Sunil in the third season of In Treatment). And Lincoln? It's almost as though the casting director had called me on the phone to ask me what actors i really wanted to see: there's David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Gloria Reuben, to name a few. 

It's been a few good days of moviegoing. It's nice to be back.