Filmlab: Best Movies about Writing – Before Sunset

Films about writers frequently focus on the thin line dividing reality and fiction. Richard Linklater’s 2004 masterpiece Before Sunset, however, puts a more profound spin on that old chestnut. The middle instalment (for now) of the real-time saga he began with 1995’s Before Sunrise and continued with 2013’s Before Midnight, the film takes the writing-is-autobiography discussion and transforms it into a philosophical meditation on time and its impact on our quest for love and meaning.

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That’s a very novelistic concept – and a very Linklater one too. Always on the lookout for form-challenging ways to reflect human experience, Linklater was a year into shooting Boyhood when he decided to return to the world of Celine and Jesse, the hyper-articulate romantics who fell for each other while walking-and-talking their way round Vienna nine years earlier. That first film was a swooning testament to the possibility of fast-forged romantic love, rendered near perfect by a dreamy script, an ambiguous ending (would they meet up six months later?) and impossible-to-resist performances from Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, both fresh-faced 20-somethings, both full of youthful optimism. Before Sunset, though, offered up something more sublime and melancholic: romance tinged with the aching complications of a brief but intense encounter that has refused to fade with time. If Boyhood would eventually demonstrate the ways in which seemingly insignificant moments could become the building blocks of a momentous life story, Before Sunset worked from the opposite impulse: showing how the memory of one magical night might – for better or worse – render banal and painful the day-to-day realities of its participants’ lives for years to come.

Making Jesse a best-selling writer whose debut novel fictionalises the events of Before Sunrise, the film also deepens its meta exploration of the connection between art and life. The opening scenes of Jesse at a book reading in Paris may draw attention to this with references to Thomas Wolfe (“anybody who writes will use the clay of their own life”, quotes Jesse), but Linklater beautifully augments the point by including a series of flash-cuts to Before Sunrise that silently re-tell the story of Jesse and Celine’s initial connection. Memory fuels fiction and fiction keeps memory alive – like a feedback loop for the soul.

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But it’s Jesse’s discussion of the novel he wants to write – a book set entirely within the timeframe of a pop song – that underlines the formalistic challenge Linklater sets himself with the film. The concept – a riff on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – is a way to explore how “time is a lie” and how certain experiences can be so intense that we keep oscillating between past and present, forever experiencing the former as intensely as the latter, sometimes more so. From the moment Jesse and Celine clap eyes on each other, time seems to evaporate. Suddenly they’re talking with the same intimacy (and Olympian stamina) they shared when they first met. Nine years becomes nine seconds: they’re right back where they left off.

Except they’re not. As the film unspools in real time, its protagonists wandering the streets of Paris, soaking up every second with each other before Jesse has to fly back to New York, we see and hear just how much he and Celine have struggled to process that night; how their interim lives – Jesse’s souring marriage, Celine’s pseudo relationships with absentee partners – have been dulled and complicated by their initially heroic (or heroically stupid) decision not to exchange numbers or addresses for fear of losing whatever magic they might have had.

Jesse’s book – entitled This Time – may have brought them back together but, as idealised as it is, it also forces them to confront the reality of what that night has done to them. And when the film ends on another ambiguous note – albeit one that suggests their romantic lives are suddenly full of possibility again – our minds can’t help but drift back to Jesse’s earlier confession of an excised epilogue in which his fictional protagonists meet again and realise they don’t actually get along. That it’s a portent of things to come in the more downbeat Before Midnight only reinforces that when it comes to real life there’s no such thing as a happy ending – just the selectively edited stories we tell ourselves to get through it.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, February 2016