Monday, September 15, 2008

The Perfect Ending

Ethan Hawke is so perfect in Before Sunrise that the movie is almost unwatchable. He plays Jesse, an American college student who meets Julie Delpy’s Celine on the final day of a trip abroad and convinces her to accompany him during his last hours in Vienna. Over the course of one afternoon and night, they fall in love. A brief, tenuous, infatuation-based love, sure. But love just the same. That this will be their fate is inevitable. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine are always walking and talking, unless they’re sitting and talking or lounging and talking. Their gabby meanderings take them past Vienna’s postcard sites, at which they engage in very little sightseeing. They’re too busy staring longingly into one another’s eyes.

That’s where Hawke’s performance comes in. His Jesse is a twitchy, goofy adolescent with an embarrassingly overconfident Don Juan glint in his eye. He’s a deep thinker who hasn’t been in life’s swimming pool long enough to realize he’s still standing in the shallow end. He’s a guy who knows what cool looks like but not what cool is. He’s a wannabe. Jesse, then, is like so many college guys you must have encountered in the real world – the kind of college guy you want to punch in the face. Repeatedly. In that way, Before Sunrise is as difficult to endure as it is accurate. Whether Jesse’s habit of making silly faces when caught in Celine’s intimidating gaze reflects Hawke’s precise understanding of his insecure character or the actor’s own discomfort with the improvisational long takes of director Richard Linklater, I haven’t a clue. But it works. If you can stand it.

My first encounter with Before Sunrise came on DVD only a few years ago, and by the midway point I’d lost track of the number of times I’d considered abandoning ship. I stayed onboard because I was enchanted by Delpy’s ease, because something about the insecure advances of both Jesse and Celine rings painfully true and because I cared about the characters just enough to want watch the inevitable realized. Yet I never expected to be rewarded. The night would end. They’d have their Casablanca farewell. Cinderella’s carriage would turn back into a pumpkin. And that would be that, I thought. Only, it wasn’t.

[If you haven’t seen Before Sunrise and have any intention to do so, it’s here that I beg you to stop reading. True enough, you won’t see this film mentioned alongside Planet Of The Apes, The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense on a list of films with Richter Scale-tripping surprise endings, yet few movies have ever concluded in such unexpected and overwhelming fashion, and I’d hate to spoil the thrill of discovery.]

After roughly 100 minutes of constant talk, Before Sunrise ends without words. In place of the dialogue, Linklater gives us anchored shots of Vienna just beginning to wake up to the early morning light. A park, an alley, a courtyard, a boat, a bridge. These images of the places where Jesse and Celine saw their love sprout, bud and blossom in one night are like photos from their scrapbook of memories – memories so fresh that they’re still malleable. Chairs where Jesse and Celine sat might still be warm to the touch, so recently were they used, and yet Vienna has already forgotten who sat there. A new day is born. As quickly as their love was realized, it has become part of history.

If I were asked to provide a cinematic definition of the word “bittersweet,” I’d offer that Vienna montage. For it to have meaning, you need to have experienced everything that precedes it, obviously. Yet those precious seconds of silence alter, for the better, the movie’s emotional core. Through the montage, which thematically mirrors the opening shots of the European countryside as seen from the train where Jesse and Celine first meet, Before Sunrise becomes not just their love story but everyone’s. In a magnificently understated manner, the film delivers a powerful message: The world waits for us to do within it what we will. The magic of life is in our hands. Our experiences define the universe around us.

Before Sunrise underscores especially that latter truth with one of its key scenes: Jesse and Celine’s first kiss comes on the same Ferris wheel made famous in The Third Man. As a result, to anyone who has seen the 1949 classic the setting is instantly evocative of a different story in a different era. Cinema buffs are likely spend the first portion of Jesse and Celine’s rotating flirtation wishing they were watching Harry Lime and Holly Martins instead. By the end of the scene, however, by the time they have embraced, Jesse and Celine have made that picturesque Vienna carnival apparatus a place of their own. They have claimed it not for the world or even for cinema but for their own narrative, and that’s territory enough. Their romance may be finite, but they’ll always have Vienna.

Which brings us back to the montage. From those picturesque shots of the city, Linklater caps Before Sunrise by letting us linger once more with Jesse (on a bus) and Celine (on a train), their romance discontinued. If the Vienna slideshow defined “bittersweet,” the expressions of the separated couple epitomize “punch-drunk.” Jesse and Celine look off into the distance trying to process feelings they haven’t had time to even identify. On their faces we see heartbreak and elation, rejuvenation and devastation. They are wonderstruck. For all of the film’s previous loquacious soul-searching, Before Sunrise is never more profound or expressive. These final moments are so powerful that they do more than just redeem the film, they redefine it.

Cooler readers: It’s easy to think of great films spoiled by lackluster endings. Please contribute other examples of instances when a film’s conclusion (be it just the final scene or the entire the final act) transformed for the better your feelings about everything that came before it.


Rob said...

Easy question at the end: Before Sunset! Their little exchange that ends the movie is priceless.

Brew said...

A film that comes to my mind is Jacob’s Ladder. I felt the ending really elevated an otherwise muddled and depressing story to one that became spiritually awakening.

Jason Bellamy said...

Here's another one: "Open Water." The power of its conclusion doesn't match "Before Sunrise," but there is one key similarity: a chatty film turns silent and finds poignance. Also, like "Before Sunrise," "Open Water" is rough around the edges. But it's still upsetting. In a good way.

Natala said...

You write very well.

Brian said...

love, love, love the ending to Before Sunrise.. - originally found you through the Conversations pieces with Ed and now I'm starting from your earliest archives in reading through your stuff when I get downtime at work.. - really enjoy the blog

Jason Bellamy said...

Brian: Cool! Thanks for reading.