Is it not a sign of the times we live in, and the narrative films made in such times, that the most awkward moment in the 80-plus minute ambulatory conversation known as Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004) occurs over a political discussion? Roughly 25 minutes into the film, long-lost lovers Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) have an uncomfortable exchange over whether the world has gotten better or worse. It’s something that approaches a political discussion, something you hardly ever see in narrative features (though you can gather them by the bushel in contemporary documentaries – now there’s a dichotomy worth reflecting on). Jesse offers up the sentiment that the world is on the whole getting better, provoking Celine into an impromptu rant about the sorry state of the environment, war, hunger and economic inequity. It’s a startling moment that almost throws the conversation (and thus the movie) off its trajectory. A bitter, strident side to Celine surfaces; Jesse isn’t sure how to respond, and backs off. I wasn’t sure how to respond either, though I consider myself closer to Celine’s socially conscious worldview, next to which Jesse comes off as Candidean.
The first time I saw this in Berlin, it must have been not just the way Jesse and Celine recommence their acquaintance after nine years of separation resonated with a week of fleeting, intense film festival conversations, but also the kismet of seeing two characters resurrected and reunited after such a long hiatus, a nostalgia for the fettered past and yearning for a redemptive present, that sent me staggering out of the Grand Palast Theatre streaming tears. Perhaps I got defensive due to a minority of critical backlash claiming that the film flattered the nostalgically self-absorbed tendencies of its audience, but I did find myself more skeptical upon a second viewing. For the first half-hour or so, the rhythm of their conversation feels erratic, tentative and not entirely satisfying to me. Of course, there are ways to justify this feeling of awkwardness, the most obvious being that it mirrors the awkwardness of any two people trying to reacquaint themselves after years apart from each other. Still, it’s worth paying attention to what gets discussed – and what meaning is being conveyed – during these awkward passages, the most awkward of all occurring over what could pass as a socio-political discussion in the politically barren landscape of contemporary narrative cinema.
They surmount this impasse – Jesse jokes that even if the world and all its problems has made Celine a bitter “Commie bitch”, that he still is glad to be alive, and to have known Celine. Celine reciprocates that she’s grateful Jesse isn’t “one of those freedom fries-loving Americans.” It’s a goofy exchange that shrugs off the awkwardness of what preceded it (and all its attendant heaviness); from here on the conversation gets considerably more intimate, more centred on feelings. But at this point my mind started playing out worst-case scenarios as to what this series of events implied about the film. It seemed to point out a limitation of the design of these characters – and by association, their authors – that politics or social consciousness amounts to being a cursory aspect to their lives, when romantic love is what’s really on their minds and is what they preoccupy the rest of their conversation with rekindling. It also implies that political discussion itself amounts to a superficial activity, one that, in any event, seems ineffective at creating a genuine connection between two people as depicted here. Celine takes up a righteous posture, to which Jesse can only react defensively. This turn of events is something not unfamiliar to those of us who have found ourselves embroiled in messy, confrontational political conversations. And knowing how these “conversations” often turn out, it’s reasonable to see why Linklater and his co-writing co-stars would let it lie as a dead end in their dialectical path towards a shared revelation. Because from the point when Celine and Jesse get on the tour boat, the film finds its surest footing. Taken as a whole, the structure of the movie for me was like listening to a live jazz quartet, where the players spend the first half-hour or so finding a common vibe, and from that point on it’s nowhere but up. It just so happens that the common vibe in this film apparently has nothing to do with politics.
Is this so wrong? If you feel as I do that politics is essential to an understanding of the way the world works, and therefore that such an understanding is essential to the greatest achievements of cinema, maybe you feel, as I do, some ambivalence about embracing what appears to be a masterpiece of apolitical, if not antipolitical, implications, where a politically-minded outburst amounts to an abortive attempt at not only discourse but also self-fulfillment (because for Linklater the two are inextricably linked). While contemporary documentaries seem to profit immensely from political rhetoric that borders on flagrant propaganda, it seems that politics in narrative filmmaking is as unwelcome as ever. It seems that the most one can say for the politics of Before Sunset is that it, in the figure of Celine, it amounts to the requisite trappings of a petit bourgeois mindset, something that people talk about because it’s something to talk about, and that eventually must be shed for the sake of a more genuine discourse towards a true mutual understanding. But isn’t this fear of discussing politics – and not just in any old way, but in a way that promotes a genuine and constructive understanding between people, a way that’s strangely lacking in many of these hiply righteous documentaries today – itself a pervasive strain of petit bourgeois posturing?
One can always rely on David Walsh of the World Socialist Website to explore a film’s political implications; his is one of the few critiques of the film I’ve actually encountered in a sea of overwhelming praise:
One doesn’t want to be impolite, but neither of these two nice people (the performers worked on their dialogue) is breathtakingly insightful. What they have to say is a bit inane and predictable, even about love…
One of the difficulties is that the film makes no distinction between the inevitable, natural processes of aging and change and the ways in which people are worn down by man-made circumstances. Youthful naiveté will and must pass, but a disappointing marriage or an unsatisfying career is not the inevitable result. These may have something to do with how life is organized at present, with institutions, with economic pressures, with things that are not inevitable and natural. Before Sunset avoids these and similar questions; its 80 minutes of dialogue fades from memory. Something larger hovers around the film, but is never seriously explored.
I think these critiques are legitimate, insofar as they point out the limited social scope in which the film situates itself: two affluent middle class urbanites indulging in a nostalgic reverie along the camera-friendly streets around the fifth arrondissement. And yet the ready rebuttal to such a critique is that these limited parameters are exactly what enable Linklater & Co. to make sensitive and worthwhile observations about who these people are. Being a writer (Jesse) or a social activist (Celine) are perhaps dream alter egos for the two actors who wrote and played these roles, adding to the element of fantasy involved in this rendering of a moment that strives for authenticity. And yet, despite these idealised visions of alternative lives, the two characters are obviously unhappy. Whereas Walsh wants the unhappiness to be linked to socioeconomic causes, for Linklater, it is more existential and dialogical: it is more a matter of how individuals meet the circumstances of their lives, how they are able or unable to communicate with others, and how they come to make decisions that affect their lives forever. Both approaches are very useful and illuminating, and I am moved to explore a way to possibly integrate them into a complementary mode of interpreting the work, instead of concluding that they are as irresolvable as politics and art appear to be in contemporary narrative filmmaking.
Walsh’s emphasis on the apparent shallowness of the script neglects the singular brilliance of the film’s cinematic execution, which again is tied into the limited parameters of the film’s conception. Walsh finds the content of the conversation superficial and unenlightening, and yet I don’t think it is the content of the conversation that’s the main issue with this film, not at all. It’s the very fact that they are having this conversation, that they are investing themselves in it, that they are opening themselves to be changed by it, and that their outlook on life is forever changed, not in any kind of overt ideological way as Walsh would have it, but just in the manner in which they have chosen to live their lives for 80 minutes. The attentiveness of Linklater’s camera to every second of this interaction is such that it challenges me, as a viewer, to cast my guardedness aside for a moment, and be more attentive and generous to these moments.
Another difference between Walsh’s response and my own is that I confess to seeing myself in these conversations, even in that abortive political outburst by Celine. When I say that the film’s general treatment of politics strikes me as “petit bourgeois”, I say this with four fingers pointing back at myself, because the film has made me think about the ways that I discuss politics everyday with friends and acquaintances, sometimes with more of a perfunctory feeling than I’d like to admit. I’ve often felt that with political discussions it’s easy to fall into routine patterns of thinking and reacting that end up leading to non-productive ends (and it’s these same routinised thought patterns that the most profitable political documentaries, even a highly substantive one like The Corporation, have exploited and reinforced in their audiences). I think the film really nails how many middle-class urban citizens feel about and discuss politics, influenced by a media-saturated environment, it emerges in conversations with some degree of tentativeness, in trying to figure out how much to assert one’s convictions vs how much to practice gracious restraint in order to allow the other person room to engage. With this in mind, one might reconsider that moment when Celine gets in Jesse’s face about the state of the world: it’s obvious she feels passionately about these problems but in expressing her passion she risks alienating him. One might then see this scene not as a dismissal of political discussion as one of several superficial modes of interaction that gradually give way to a more direct mode of discourse. Instead, it could be that Linklater is illustrating a particular kind of political discourse – one predicated on familiar attitudes, thought patterns and rhetorical maneuvers – that has led us mostly nowhere.
So where can one turn? If Celine’s most awkward moment is her explicitly political outburst, I think her most breathtakingly beautiful moment comes at the end, when, before an admiring Jesse, she does an impromptu dance, channelling the spirit of recently deceased singer/songwriter/political activist Nina Simone, whose song “Just in Time” fills the room with her voice. Though Simone was one of the most politically conscious singers of the 20th century, Celine does not explicitly attribute her love of Simone to political reasons. The way she recalls Simone in concert (the way Simone would stop in the middle of the song, just to stride confidently to the edge of the stage and strike up an impromptu rapport with an audience member, before striding confidently back to resume her number without missing a beat) indicates that Celine loved her for her ability to act like a free human being. Celine’s fondness for Simone and desire to emulate her may seem like the idle fancies of a comfortably middle class woman, but Celine’s admiration for Simone’s originality and spirit is unmistakably genuine, and quite revealing about what she wants to be.
But we must insist that the Nina Simone that Celine is gushing about, the one who acted so original on stage, in a way that the somewhat neurotic Celine would obviously love to enact in her own life, is inextricable from the Nina Simone who was politically active, if only because Simone’s lifestyle couldn’t help but have political implications. When looking at a life like Nina Simone’s, epitomised by performances such as the legendary rendition of the Civil Rights anthem “Mississippi Goddam” to a shocked Carnegie Hall audience in 1964, the act of finding a free mode of expression acquires a significance that is as political as it is personal. Would this be a Nina Simone embraced by Richard Linklater, an autodidactic cineaste and lifelong independent filmmaker? Linklater’s filmography has rarely delved into the overtly political (even the post-9/11 reflection Live from Shiva’s Dance Floor  avoids political rhetoric), choosing instead to focus on existential dilemmas, a desire to achieve a kind of personal liberation through the manner of his artistic expression, one that celebrates the liberating act of truly engaged social discourse and uninhibited collaboration. This striving for personal liberation is something apparent even in Linklater’s most commercial endeavour, School of Rock (2003), where a dubious demagogue (Jack Black) pushes a cliched rock burn-out ideology on a classroom of unsuspecting preppy grade-schoolers: the results almost redeem the ideology by pumping it with a sense of youthful enthusiasm and discovery. For Linklater, it’s not the ideas or the institutions that matter so much as seeing them set in motion; he’s interested in processes, interactions, collaborations, and exchanges. Some deriders of Waking Life (2001) found it overburdened with ideas, but they missed where the action really was with that movie, the drama of what it means for people both onscreen and in the audience to engage with those ideas, with openness, enthusiasm and freedom. The freedom is found not in the ideas themselves, but in the way one engages with them, and engages with another person in a mutual effort to find that feeling of revealing and empowering awareness.
How hard is it to see the political implications of this, how a conversation between two long lost friends becomes a kind of revolutionary act? Contrast this to the totally non-communicative political “discussions” you see on television these days (all those government spokespeople spinning daily developments to their advantage, or pundits speculating on outcomes instead of analysing the issues) and perhaps it becomes clear how politically radical a concept genuine communication may be.
Is this supposed political manifesto really so obvious from watching Celine dancing to Nina Simone in Before Sunset? Perhaps not – the film offers no such favours in spelling out what political relevance it may have, if any. As with everything in the film, as with Jesse and Celine as they occupy a shared moment that starkly confronts them with their own personal freedom to make choices that will affect their lives from this point onward, we as viewers have a choice to make: not only in the kinds of movies we want to embrace, but the terms by which we want to champion them. Despite what we may be led to assume, those terms are no more predetermined than the prospects for a truly politically conscious narrative cinema.
Many thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Walsh, and IMDb discussion board members Antonious Block and jij_80 for their insights that contributed to this essay.
Some useful and informative links on Nina Simone:
with particular focus on her political identity: