No two films about the troubling nature of love better bracketed the latter half of 2004 than Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Both films, long available on DVD, are worth watching again over a rainy weekend in August (if we have one), because both are without question masterful if not masterpieces.
Both expertly deal with ‘damaged’ people trying to find their way through pain, depression, self-loathing, what-have-you, to that place where they can let themselves be loved again. Both also happen to be deeply moving and painfully funny. The fact that one of them, Before Sunset, happens to be a sequel to the tiny, perfect Before Sunrise (1995) is just the icing on the cake.
In Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an American student on the last day of his European adventure. Céline (Julie Delphy) is a Parisian heading home after a similar journey. They meet in Vienna on a train and decide to get off and walk and talk the night away, only parting as the sun rises. They promise to meet again in Vienna a year later. But we know they won’t. Set nine years later, Céline and Jesse finally meet again, but this time in Paris: Jesse is in the city to promote his roman á clef novel about their Vienna encounter; Céline because she lives there and has read he is appearing in the city for a reading. They then spend the next eighty or so minutes walking and talking through the streets of Paris, rediscovering each other. Hawke, looking gaunt and haunted, portrays Jesse as a man living in regret who reaches desperately out to the women he’s always believed is his soul mate; Delphy’s Céline is rapidly approaching a brittle early middle age where she has grown distrustful of the whole idea of love.
Through a brisk 80 minutes, mostly set in real time, Linklater, working with a script written by himself and his two leads, presents us with the unique privilege of eavesdropping on a very private conversation. Those of us who love the first film are very protective of the characters, so when he manages to get everything right in this reunion it is as if we have been given a very special gift indeed.
Payne’s moving Sideways may be set in a different country, specifically California’s wine country, but it explores the same themes with similar élan. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a failure at everything - writer, educator, husband - save for an expert knowledge of the fermented grape. His best friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), is a failed TV series actor who is an extraordinarily successful pussy hound. This is problematic, especially since he is to be married in a week’s time. Miles is the best man and decides to give Jack a road trip bachelor party disguised as a wine tasting/golfing trip. Both men are addicts - Jack to meaningless sex (especially with winery ‘pour girl,’ Stephanie - played by Sandra Oh); Miles to alcohol. The fact the two men manage to help each other - Miles gets Jack to grow up and accept responsibility (maybe); Jack helps Miles to be open to the possibilities (hopefully) of love with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a restaurant/winery waitress they encounter on the road trip.
Both movies have scenes that are so beautifully written and acted you literally find yourself not breathing. In Before Sunset, as Céline and Jesse take the final taxi ride, Céline lets loose with a condemnation of love that is heart tearing in its ferocity. You care deeply about these characters and you think that this is the moment when all will be lost because of one them just cannot believe true love exists. In Sideways, Miles and Maya share a glass of wine and talk about their feelings by talking about wine. Miles explains why he loves the temperamental, changeable Pinot Noir, but it is when Virginia Madsen’s Maya talks about how a bottle of wine is a time capsule to a certain place that no longer exists that makes you hold your breath. It is one of those moments that lingers and lingers and lingers in the mind not unlike the time you first try an exceptional bottle of wine. In that moment, Madsen’s performance was and is one of her finest pieces of acting to date.
Before Sunset and Sideways are two exquisite miniatures of movies that dig deeply into the troubled heart of real love. (SPOILER ALERT) Both of them end exactly at the right, albeit ambiguous, moment. Seconds before each film’s fade to black, in my head I was practically screaming: ‘end it now, end it now,’ and when they both did I knew I was in the hands of master storytellers.