Wednesday, July 07, 2004

I'd Dissolve Into Molecules

I’ve long been a fan of Eric Rohmer’s films: Claire’s Knee, Chloe In the Afternoon, Pauline At the Beach, Summer and especially his Tales of the Four Seasons. His work is infused with something so mellow, breezy and special that by the end of the aforementioned films I was almost always surprised and dazzled by how much they had affected me. They have the languorous quality of a summer day spent busily doing nothing. His characters always seem to be off on one of those 6 week vacations Europeans excel in taking, making use of a friends cottage in some sleepy resort town and they're either looking for love or running from it. And they talk. A lot. They gather around café tables, sit on beach towels, stroll dappled paths and rhapsodize on their longings, weaknesses, fears, triumphs and the general nature of things. Sometimes they even listen in on other conversations. (In one of my favorite Rohmer scenes, one Cathy tires of me repeatedly returning to, from Summer, Marie Riviere, a frequent cast member in Rohmer’s films, sits on a bench near the seaside and listens to an elderly man explain to his friends that sometimes, just as the sun sinks below the horizon, if you’re lucky enough you’ll see a flash of radiant green. In fact, the French title of the film is Le Rayon Vert, or The Green Ray. I mention this scene because it exemplifies the eminence Rohmer gives to the everyday, not by inflating such seemingly mundane scenes with unnecessary dramatic tension, but by happening upon them, as if by chance, and folding them delicately into his story so that they becomes necessary to the whole.) What’s important to note is that the talk is always delightful, full of insights and sly humor and how it always creeps up on me, its charms, perhaps dull at the beginning, taking on an accumulative power that almost always radiates by the end. In Rohmer's films, language is a floodlight, lighting out the territories of doubt and confusion in search of the sweetest, most luminescent of resolutions.

Jonathan Rosenbaum recently made a compelling connection between Rohmer's work and that of the American director, Richard Linklater, one of my favorite directors from the states. In his current review of Linklater’s masterpiece, Before Sunset, Rosenbaum writes:

And where Liklater’s cinematic models in Before Sunrise were Hollywood love stories such as Vincente Minelli’s The Clock (1945), they’re now more French New Wave, Eric Rohmer in particular.

Before Sunset, like Rohmer’s films, has that special languorous quality, at times almost dreamlike in its evanescence. (There are many exquisite moments of evanescence in the film, but none more so for me then when Jesse and Celine wind their way up the staircase to her room, a scene that radiates with the piquant luminescence of the present, of soaking it all in as it rushes by, of memory and longing becoming, magically and finally, manifest.) The characters talk in a café, while walking down leaf-strewn streets, through dappled gardens, on a boat ride down the Seine, in a car…an apartment. And it's the talk that captivates us, ripe as it is with hope and expectation and an undertow of bitterness and confusion that slowly rises up and threatens to overwhelm Jesse and Celine. In the years that have passed since the characters first met (the equally great Before Sunrise), their hopes and giddy expectations- the swooning romanticism they once so freely exhibited and acted on, have recoiled into a present world where fences have been built around such seemingly rash exhibitions of emotion. Linklater and his actor's do such a wonderful, nuanced job with casually displaying and stripping away those layers, through gestures (when Celine's hand reaches over to caress Jesse's hair when he's not looking, for example, only to pull away in doubt) and a conversation that moves from the rudimentary motions of reacquainting to the nearly desperate desire to "only connect." Shallows give way to depths in a conversation that feels so honest and truthful that one feels the desire the toss away any caution one may have about superlatives and heap them on. It's in that web of dialogue that we come to understand each character's vulnerabilities, regrets and and desires. It's in all that banter that we become aware of the subtle incredulity both feel toward their younger selves and it’s through their conversation that we witness the giddy reappearance of their mutual seduction- how they joke about sex and brush up against one another as they walk along or sit on a bench. Language is a floodlight and they're always on the cusp (sometimes it even brims over) of drowning or gloriously rising above the what could have beens and maybes.

If the movie has a theme, it's time and more essentially, time passing. It's the whiplash bitterness Celeine feels in reading Jesse's thinly disguised fictional account of their day in Vienna, how if stirs up and forces an introspection into who she was then and what she’s become. It's the regret Jesse feels in going through the motions of his loveless marriage all the while wondering "What if?" Time has caught up to both of them, its undercurrent taking them 9 years away from each other and suddenly, not entirely unexpectedly, they're given another chance. In each of the films 80 minutes you're aware of the delicious now of it all. Hawke's Jesse, who professes to Celeine that he's written his book to find her, practically radiates, not satisfaction, but gratefulness- he’s overwhelmed that his hopes have become flesh. Celine, perhaps the more confused of the two, must confront and reclaim the woman she once was if she too is going to take the chance given them. The things Jesse tells her about his loveless marriage, the dreams he's had of her, haunt and engulf her unexpectedly. It’s almost too much for her to recognize that both have continued to feel so much and so similarly. It’s a gift to any viewer, such as myself, who fell in love with these two characters a decade ago. It gives us hopeless romantics fodder. The day they spent in Vienna wasn't an idle fling- it was something far more profound, just as we hoped. It's become their hope and their desire and though they've each gone their own direction, its presence has haunted them. On Jesse's wedding day, he thinks he sees Celine in the streets of New York City (and, indeed, in a delicious aside, we learn that it may very well have been) and in the lovely waltz Celine sings in her apartment, the memory of their day in Vienna has lingered. (Note: Oh, my- is not every second in her room enchanted? It's romantic filigree, every nuance a garland and all of it given root and earth through the presence of Nina Simone! Oh, I tell you, it’s too much, this lovliness.)

Do you know (or even have) songs in your collection that are so short that the silence that follows their end practically aches? Songs that you wish would just go on forever but last, say, just under a couple minutes (The Smiths’ Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want is probably my template for what I’m getting at) before ending? Part of what makes them so special is their brevity- how they linger and reverberate in the tainted silence that follows. At 80 minutes, Before Sunset ends before you want it to, but it’s really just in time (which, by the way, is the name of the Nina Simone song playing in Celine’s apartment). I can’t possibly give words to just how special the ending is. Without much reservation I can say it’s the finest, most exquisite ending to any film I’ve seen. Territories aglow, it fades with the sweetest, most luminescent of resolutions.

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