This page as PDF

Before Sunset

Mellifluous Romance


How to make a romantic film romantically? Let’s say Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset joins other films of the last fifteen years, One Night Stand, Afterglow and Vendredi Soir, as a work of intrinsic romanticism, romanticism so intrinsic that throwing ourselves out of the romantic state to write about the film is to miss the point. Poring over articles in Sight and Sound and Film Comment after seeing the film felt a little like being forced to take a cold shower to douse one’s passions. In Nick James’s often sensitive piece in the former, for example, he says “if you’re in the throes of a mutual fascination with somebody, if the apparently chemical process known as ‘being in love’, or more coolly, ‘being infatuated with’ someone, are coursing through your system, then this film will offer the most straightforward catharsis. For the rest of us, it provides the joys of a transcendent work of art, an experience that lives will be poorer for missing.” One feels here, though, the position of an outsider. It’s a little like the way romantic comedies are made where the romantic aspect is contained within the dynamics of narrative conventionality. Here James seems contained by a sort of decorum that rests with the not-in-love rather than the in-love. It is that key comment, ‘for the rest of us’. Does the romantic comedy not also often feel like it’s been made for the rest of us rather than in the spirit of being romantic?

What the romantic film needs to do is eschew ironically many of the conventions of the romantic film to work romantically. It must avoid too strongly a teleology; a sense of expectation on the characters’ part for the maximizing tension in the moment. Time in the romantic film mustn’t be clock time, impersonal time as philosopher Henri Bergson called it, but personal time, with impersonal time merely an oppressive outside influence waiting to impact upon the characters. Where the romantic comedy often plays on the essential nature of time, and in fact also of space, the genuinely romantic film allows time and space to collapse into the ethereal nature of the permeating feeling, as if reflecting Bergson’s claim in Matter and Memory that “with the immediate present data of our senses, we mingle a thousand details out of our past experiences.” It is exactly this that Ethan Hawke’s novelist Jesse tries to explain near the beginning of the film as he does a book reading and is asked what his second book might be about. As he says he would like to write a novel that would take place within the length of time of a pop song, he adds, “all his life is folding in on itself and it is obvious that time is a lie.” As he speaks the film flashes back to the film to which Before Sunset is a follow-up: Before Sunrise, and also cuts to the woman from that past whom he now notices is in the bookshop.

It is the film’s capacity to create a sense of duration, to create a present so active with past and yet so keen to make the most of the moment, which makes Linklater’s film one of the most romantic ever made, as he collapses narrative into ninety odd minutes of running time. In such an instance time needs both to fly and yet also be meaningful as he captures the intensity of love as narrative possibility, and not narrative expectation to suggest love. How does Linklater achieve this? Firstly by having Jesse possessing only an hour and a half of time before capturing his plane back to the States, after he takes a coffee with the woman with whom he’d had the briefest of flings in Vienna nine years before, the very woman whom he sees turning up at the Paris bookshop at the moment he invokes time present contained by time past. His first novel is a book based loosely, or not so loosely, on that fling nine years previously, and now he’s a married man with a small child and a life that’s closing in on him.

Céline (Julie Delpy) has never quite found the right man in her life and continues to have half-hearted relationships: her latest with someone who is only in Paris half the time and this seems to be more the problem that she has a part-time partner than that she sees this man intermittently. She might be happy with the arrangement concerning this man, but wouldn’t she ideally be seeing someone with whom she would want to spend far more time? It is as though she is vaguely resentful that she isn’t in a more meaningful relationship, rather than that she doesn’t see enough of him in particular. This would seem to create plenty room for the conventions of the romantic comedy, but Linklater doesn’t offer up the complications as plot possibilities, but instead as no more and no less than areas of emotional dissatisfaction to be worked through with someone whose instincts, thoughts and feelings are similar to one’s own, and yet where these feelings are complicated by the potential for nostalgia and mortality. As Céline says in the taxi that takes her back to her apartment and should be taking Jesse to the airport, aren’t her feelings towards Jesse intertwined with feelings about her youthful self and her dreams and hopes? But it also seems that Jesse is both that person from the past and also the person who in the present she can explore these very feelings with.

In another example of intensified romance that isn’t at all however mellifluous, the gap between youthful feelings and present concerns are bifurcated: in Hiroshima, mon amour, the lover from the past is a dead German soldier; the one in the present a Japanese man she meets in Hiroshima. Here, in the obviously rather more and quite deliberately lightweight Before Sunset, the man is one and the same. The romantic comedy often wants to indicate a certain inevitability in the burgeoning emotional entanglement greater even than the characters’ own feelings, and has consequently become a genre as given to parallel montage, as given to cutting between two spaces simultaneously, as the action film. How often do we see in a romantic comedy two forlorn characters going about their individual lives in the first section of the film as we wait for them to conjoin, with Last Chance Harvey a recent example? Before Sunset offers something else. Like the earlier film,Before Sunrise, it gives us a series of shots where the characters are absent. In the first film the shots come at the end as we see after the characters have parted the places where they had been. In Before Sunset, it is the other way round as the film opens with the places they will then go and hang out in: we see them later at the cafe, park etc that a series of montage shots introduce us to even though we might initially see these shots as no more than images locating us in the city in which it is set. Here the film is also anticipatory, like the romantic comedy, but for different reasons. If the romantic comedy uses a conventional device as it crosscuts to the couple before they meet to create a wry expectant empathy, Linklater’s montage creates surely a deeper sense of enquiry. It is as though he is asking how to show love has a spatial, impersonal dimension. It might not carry the depth charge of Alain Resnais’s great film, but it shares with Hiroshima, mon amour, the interest in seeing love as spatially meaningful rather than temporally inevitable.

So we’re beginning to define the difference between what we could call the mellifluous romance from the romantic genre film often just labelled the romantic comedy. We can perhaps explore how the former believes in the essence of generating love states; the latter a machine, to paraphrase Raymond Bellour, for the creation of the marriage. If marriage, in many ways, belongs to the State, and is certainly legitimized by the State, then love is instead a ‘state’, a feeling, a state unto itself. It is made much less of impersonal time than the personal time that dissolves time and space. Thus where Jesse and Céline wander around Paris, Linklater films the city as barely even a backdrop – so much is the romance within them, it becomes a mellifluous space, a space that absorbs them, but does not generate event through its existence. Paris provides no obstacles, nor does it provide narrative event. In the recent Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson’s central character travels through both the city’s past – meeting up with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and others in the Twenties – and also the city’s present with various women becoming possible lovers as his relationship with his fiancée looks a disaster. Allen opens his film not unlike Linklater does (as we see a series of shots of Paris in the sun and in the rain as if in homage both to the city and also of course’ Allen’s Manhattan), but this is Allen preparing us for the utilisation of local flavour, as with London in Match Point and Barcelona in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In each instance character and event work with external, dramatic time, and the city is used to create new dramatic situations located within strongly evident spaces. In Midnight in Paris, there is the visit to Versailles; to the Rodin museum at L’invalides etc. These are ‘strong’ spaces; Linklater works with ‘weak’ spaces. The former create and are vital to drama; the latter to the type of romance that is motivated much more from inside than outside and much more from a mutual expectation of inner feeling than narrative guessing games. For in the romantic comedy film extrapolation is central. In Notting Hill for example the purpose is less for the characters to comprehend each other, than for narrative devices to create problems before their eventual coupledom. Thus we have a ‘nonentity’ and a Hollywood star. We have the media intrusion and we have various misunderstandings. Misunderstanding we could say is central to the romantic comedy the way a steady and subtle understanding is vital to the love film, where the characters unravel layers of self in a mutual emotional self-realisation.

But we shouldn’t think this unravelling is just revelation – it is at the same time an act of creation – wonderfully illustrated in the closing scene here where Céline dances to Nina Simon (almost becomes Nina Simone) – while Jesse sits on her couch realizing he’s never going to make his plane. Thus where the romantic comedy so often wants to extrapolate narratively, the love film wants to unravel and create. It wants to unravel thoughts rarely shared, and at the same time wants to create new ones out of a mutual exchange of selves. Perhaps when Céline dances to Nina Simone this is her usual shtick, but it seems to come out of a certain intimacy the characters have worked towards – that Céline has for a long time had this capacity within her, but has never come close to showing it. It resembles in many ways the dance Faunia Farley does in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. “She laughs the easy laugh. And dances. Without the idealism, with the idealization, without all the utopianism of the sweet young thing, despite everything she knows reality to be, despite the irreversible futility that is her life, despite all the chaos and callousness, she dances! And speaks as she’s never spoken to a man before.” Here Faunia Farley both discovers something new and discovers something immanent within her. Out of this intimate moment we see somebody becoming a new human being by tapping into the possibilities within herself, no matter of this new self is fleeting.

It is this fleeting feeling that is absolutely central to films of love. In many ways the romantic comedy doesn’t allow for this type of new self to emerge because what the self wants is quite clear. One often wants a man/or woman, marriage and a family, and frequently the narrative works from these types of motivations. There isn’t so much the unsettled self, looking to discover new aspects, but the settled self looking to find somebody with whom this settled self can co-exist. We could even say that is the point of romantic comedies – the pursuit of co-existence, the degree to which two relatively settled in their ways human beings find compatibility. If we feel the romantic comedy is a conservative genre next to the ‘love film’ it lies in the way the genre comes through compromise, works to bring two people together as they busily iron out differences. If we take French Kiss as an example, we see how initially Meg Ryan’s American non-dairy eater and Kevin Kline’s cheese-obsessive find love through these compromises. In the romantic comedy, we rarely find personalities intensifying as they do in the love film, but instead diluting their way towards co-habitation.

In a documentary by Pat Collins and Fergus Daly called The Art of Living, the French critic, Alain Bergala, talks interestingly about what he calls an ‘arrangement’ in the director’s work. An arrangement consists of an experience between two people that allows for a new self to evolve. In The Taste of Cherry, for example, there’s the central character looking to die, and there’s the taxidermist who agrees to bury him but at the same time discusses why he might not need to commit suicide. Out of this situation comes a new arrangement – a situation somewhere between a concept and an emotion – where characters comprehend an aspect of themselves neither would otherwise have understood.

In a film like Before Sunset obviously the emphasis is on the emotion over the concept, but the purpose remains the same; to create an intensity, an intense feeling so undiluted that can lead Jesse to miss his plane and Celine to become briefly Nina Simone. This moment that arrives at the very end of the film reflects the accumulative effect of thought and feeling which comes from each character searching out immanent thought. Jesse says early on, maybe he wrote the book about their meeting nine years previously in Vienna as a way of getting in touch again. There is something very suggestive here, as art imitates life and then instigates a situation in life once more. This is art for love’s sake, if you like, as the book seems to help both characters to return to their previous selves nine years before. How much would they remember if they’d bumped into each other accidentally on a Parisian street, and would it have quite the same impact if there weren’t the intent of a book now between them?

What the film touches upon here is not so much the significance of Jesse’s book as Jesse’s book, but the idea of art instigating new or old and possibly forgotten possibilities in the structure of the self. Can an art work, be it one’s own or another’s, not move us into the impersonal time aspect that can relate the feelings of freedom to love, that can obliterate, healthily, our obligations to conventional notions of time and space? In each film, in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, there’s a hypothetical, playful element that allows the characters to both be themselves and to become still more than that. At the beginning of the first film, Jesse persuades Céline to get off the train with him in Vienna as if they were playing a game of dare. There is a time limit, until dawn, but it’s as though the time limit releases the pressure of time. Within the time limit, as in Before Sunset, there is the sense that time is entirely personal, rather like the time we may have between the alarm going off and fifteen minutes before we finally have to get up.

How then do we create these intimate spaces in our lives? Before Sunset proposes several. One is to hypothesise ourselves, to create a playfulness that can lead to de-clocking time in both the immediate and more temporally elongated sense. We de-clock time by saying this time is completely ours, even if it is only an hour and a half. Then we de-temporalize by getting in touch with our past selves that allows us to act as we might have acted when we were twelve, and get in touch with thoughts we might not have in other circumstances. We can also add the importance of art and the way it can simultaneously depersonalize and personalize us. It can depersonalize in that it’s an often empathic, abstract experience, and personalize us in the way it releases from within us thoughts and feelings. Jesse’s book functions like this, because he plays it both as fictionalized account and as confessional, and manages to have it both ways to maximize hypothetical playfulness. And is this not what Céline does when she dances to Nina Simone, as she’s both Céline dancing to Nina Simone and pretending to be Nina Simone?

Now there is often this idea when we fall in love that we become vulnerable as we confess all to our new loved one, but maybe underestimated is the vulnerability not of just our past experiences divulged, but our new, tentative creative experiences in the present. It is as though Linklater wanted to explore these issues as a performative act, by making a film that could itself be imitative of the process. This doesn’t mean Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy had to fall in love, but that Linklater wanted from them a vulnerability that was more than just thespian – evident for example in the fact the actors wrote many of their own lines. In turn the film becomes part of the possibility to love. For if we claimed the importance of art on creating these de-temporal spaces, so Linklater’s films become part of that de-temporalizing. It may even be why he has structured it around so rigid a sense of time: to suggest how if we concentrate time into pockets of possible freedom, we can create fresh possibilities for ourselves. In the night in Vienna in Before Sunrise, Jesse and Céline have what seems like an absolute freedom from temporal constraint, but maybe only by having a constraint in the first place.

Here again we can see the difference between the mellifluous romance and the romantic comedy. If time is usually condensed and even quite subjective in the mellifluous romance, time is usually elongated and de-subjectified in comedic romance. When we think of films of love like, say, Les Amants and Vendredi Soir we witness the way they compress time. In Vendredi Soir, the characters accept that they have no more than a night together; in Les Amants, Jeanne Moreau’s character wonders if, the very next morning as she and her lover drive away from her husband and child, what they’ve created is remotely sustainable. Should Moreau and her lover have accepted the beauty of one evening together and parted, and thus controlled the temporal elements even as they let go of their emotions?

Of course, sometimes in the romantic comedy a playful subjectivity comes into play. In the underrated Serendipity, there’s a conceit not unlike that at the end of Before Sunrise. In Linklater’s film Jesse and Céline agree not to exchange addresses, telephone numbers etc. because it would make it all too predictable and obligatory. In Serendipity, both John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale’s characters have partners, and though it is obvious there is attraction between them, they part with just one possible contact detail. Beckinsale agrees to put her address inside a copy of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in a particular bookshop. This leads to all sorts of complications which undermine the characters’ deliberations and emphasises, as the title suggests, the contingent. If Serendipity proves more interesting than many a romantic comedy it lies in working from the conceit, from a degree of paradoxical subjectivity and contingency that seems more central to the mellifluous romance. But because it is still a romantic comedy, it needs to create the sort of obstacles the romantic comedy so loves: the idea of Beckinsale marrying the wrong man; Cusack the wrong woman. There is still the expected narrative tropes that allows for the narrative to have a stronger say than the characters’ own creativity. So where Serendipity ends with Cusack and Beckinsale getting together to the non-diegetic sound of a Nick Drake song after much narrative contrivance, Céline quite deliberately puts on Nina Simone and takes control of the situation.

Does this sum up the fundamental difference between the film of love and the romantic comedy? In the former, many of the decisions are very much within the realm of the characters. Not only do they often create a subjective sense of time; frequently they’re caught within ethical dilemmas that contingency can’t get them out of. There is nothing contingent in Jesse’s acceptance that he won’t catch the plane. A film more intent on making things easy would have had Jesse and Céline going to the airport and Jesse’s plane having been cancelled. But as Jesse sits there, drunk on his feelings for Céline, he knows this is his decision, and knows also that it hardly a sober one. We feel the paradoxically giddy weight of a decision being made over the contingent element of fatalist intent.

If we talk of giddy weight it is because we should be wary of crediting characters like Jesse, here, or Moreau in Les Amants, or Valerie Lemercier’s character in Vendredi Soir, with complete control of their faculties, because there is in them initially a vague feeling of dissatisfaction that couldn’t be met by a Lonely-hearts column – all of them are in relationships – but as if there is an area of tenderness, of potential self-understanding, that demands to be shared by another.

It is here where the mellifluous romance shades into the film of adultery (Damage, Unfaithful and Faithless as examples), but where the former are celebratory of the state of love, the latter tends to be more interested in the repercussions on others. This is not Before Sunset’s concern, which makes it a genuinely amoral genre, and why being realistic or moralistic towards would be beside the point. If the film very successfully takes us inside a state of intimacy, why throw ourselves back out of that condition? It would be like making a category error, taking the proverbial apple for an orange. And it would be an error on no more nor less than an affective level, because we would be throwing ourselves out of the love state the film has set out to create. The question the mellifluous film generally asks isn’t, what is this moral conundrum I find myself in, but what is this mellifluous state I’m generating with another, and how can I sustain it? This is really what Moreau means when she wonders whether her and her lover’s love will last beyond the morning. If morality starts to become evident, does it do so only when the love state is in danger of wearing off?

This suggests perhaps that it’s also a genre of denial, but it is better to see it as a space where morality has no place because it’s a pocket of possibilities which then need to be acted upon not so much morally as ethically. This distinction can be seen as the end of Vendredi Soir, where Lemercier looks like she’ll move in with her long-term lover despite just spending a wonderful night with a complete stranger. As she leaves in the morning with a huge, liberating smile, we feel she’s created a new space in her life. Whether she’ll need the man again, or at a later stage meet another, or remains faithful to her lover, who knows. But she sees there are possibilities in the world beyond the predictable.

How will Jesse feel the next morning when he wakes up beside Céline and not arriving off the red-eye in the States? To surmise too much would be to throw ourselves out of the film’s mood, but depending on whether he views his life morally or ethically may depend in how he will feel. If he thinks too morally he could worry about what he’s done to his wife and son, or if he’s thinking ethically he might think about where he’s going to live, with whom he’s going to live with, and how he’s going to sustain this suddenly, radically different existence. It should be a feeling full of hope and with an aspect of dread. But if he were to wake up with huge regrets and full of remorse would he finally have no place in the mellifluous romance?


©Tony McKibbin