Two Perspectives on Paris: Before Sunset

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy early in Before Sunset
It could be worse, people. I could have left you for nine years before writing again.

In real life, I gather friends together for themed double-feature movie nights a couple times a month in the summer and winter. Moving forward, I’ll translate the more interesting double-features into posts for your enjoyment. You can check out the introduction to the first set below.

In Before Sunset—Richard Linklater’s 2004 follow-up to his 1995 sleeper classic Before Sunrise—we watch two characters seduced, intimidated, built up and torn down by a third. The first two are Celine and Jesse, two thirtysomethings who met on a train in Vienna in 1995 and haven’t seen each other since. The third is, of course, Paris, a vibrant city with which they each have markedly different relationships.

Jesse, in town peddling a minor bestseller he wrote about his one night with Celine nine years earlier, sees Paris the way many young Americans with stifled ambitions do: The city of lights. The city of magic. The city of romance. As the movie opens, he’s finishing a reading at Shakespeare & Co. and sees her peeking at him from around a corner. He fumbles through the end of his Q&A and leaves with her. He only has a short time until his flight, but he’s determined to spend it catching up.

Celine lives in Paris. Over the past nine years, she has elevated her night with Jesse from a memory to a fantasy to a myth. While smoking in a café, walking through gardens and boating past Notre Dame lull Jesse into a breezy dream-state, they just reinforce for her that this symbolic reverie is breaking out of her past and intruding on her real, day-to-day life.

For Jesse, this tour is a romp around a dream land, but Notre Dame’s beauty serves to wake him up, or at least push him toward discussing his own, stifled dreams about Celine. They get in a car, and Celine breaks down, angry at him for coming into her real life “all romantic, and married.”

Celine almost touches Jesse.
In the car, they each try to touch the other when the other has turned away, beautifully recalling the childish glances they stole in the first movie's music booth scene.

This sets up the movie’s quiet, stunning final act: Jesse walks Celine to her apartment, and as they scale the steps she becomes quiet, awkward and excited. He asks her to sing one of her songs, and she sings a dreamy song about their one-night stand. He finally stops pretending as though he has any intention of catching his plane. We hold on one shot as she gives in to fantasy and he admits to reality. They’ve switched places. And we fade to black.

The movie paints Paris as the city that stirs up passion, capable of reviving youthful romance that you had thought long-dead. Later this week, we’ll look at a movie that conversely sees Paris as the city that kills passionate youths.

I swear. It will be this week.

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