Talk Flirty to Me

They'll always have Vienna: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in 'Before Sunset'
Warner Independent Pictures

It has been nine years since the two backpackers in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise spent their idyllic night in Vienna. In that film, Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy pulled off the near-impossible: They captured the essence of "conversation as sex" without the aid of smoldering noir or screwball repartee. Linklater has long been fascinated with the common tongue, from stoner sophistry and high school patois to caffeinated futurism. Even the philosopher academics who lent their expertise to his picaresque rotoscope romp Waking Life openly accepted the challenge to relay their theories in language that an earnest, questing mortal dreamer could follow. (Those who clung to precision jargon sounded like poets slinging erudite raps.) As Before Sunrise's ebullient twosome reveled in undergrad banter about material reality and the afterlife, it was obvious that Hawke and Delpy delighted in the chemistry of their exchange. They themselves were youthful, ambitious artists channeling the hubris of their own oyster-worlds into these coltish, intelligent alter egos.

Nine years ago, when, at 25, I wrote about Before Sunrise for City Pages, I mentioned Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse, comparing Linklater's banter to the Frenchman's erotic characterization of ecstatic talk: "I rub my language against the other." Now, as we catch up with Hawke's Jesse and Delpy's Céline, Barthes's book becomes even more relevant. That is, more of his observations apply--those about absence, ache, the ravages of time, and the limits of language.

Before Sunrise ended with the couple agreeing, in a mutual show of nonchalance, that instead of exchanging contact info they would simply meet at a designated Viennese spot six months later. When Before Sunset opens in present-day Paris, we assume that the rendezvous never took place. We're reintroduced to Jesse at Paris's Shakespeare and Co., where he signs copies of his novel. A stagy Q&A reveals it to have been based on his encounter with Céline. It's a clunky device, but, in the Barthesian sense, totally appropriate. A Lover's Discourse laments the futility of writing as a substitute for the other's attentions, but concedes that the written word's existence at least advances a certain paltry hope. "To know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not--this is the beginning of writing." Of course, as Jesse prepares to leave for the airport, his subject appears. And for the next hour and a half, the minutes run like rabbits.

Before the two characters speak, they register shock at the other's appearance, seemingly thrown by the effects of age. For those of us who saw Before Sunrise in our early 20s, this simple flicker is devastating. In this moment, Hawke and Delpy seem simply Hawke and Delpy--taking stock of their careers, of their successes and flops, of the way their ingénue looks have settled into lined definition. He, so boyish by the Viennese fountain, here looks chiseled and almost gaunt; her brow is bravely furrowed, her fairytale hair unavoidably more fragile. His cockiness is chastened, even fatigued; her script-flipping is more skillful, even strident.

Linklater's camera coaxes the pair through the streets of the city as the pink of the magic hour descends. Their motions and interjected "Let's go this way"s are by turns as tentative and decisive as their lines of conversational inquiry. Tension builds once it becomes clear that the original chemistry has survived. So long dormant, it rises, Lazarus style, as they examine it from every angle to prove it's really alive. But like their facial features, their once-fresh methods of confrontation and seduction have a battle-tested quality. She is still more agile than he, but takes a more rueful delight in it than before. We sense she has learned how to wield that skill: that she leans on its power, but resents the fact that it hasn't brought her contentment.

Potential political disagreement is masked by expert backpedaling humor. Faux-stumbles into matter-of-fact sex talk ("Do you have special words you like to hear?") are not the blurted explorations of the former Vienna naifs. But in the same way that the characters overtly parodied their own callowness in Before Sunrise, here they make sure to parody their jaded sophistication. When Jesse has confessed his marriage woes, the single Céline mock-comforts him with the stingingly pragmatic observation that family life wouldn't work so well "if your wife was obsessed with riding you like a wildcat all the time." They couch their mounting excitement in staid class-reunion data transfer. But as their tripping diction and flushed faces attest, their words entwine like furtive limbs. He jokes that if someone was to touch him he might break into molecules--but he is already breaking, pheromones flying. As Barthes put it: "I set a mask upon my passion, but with a discreet (and wily) finger I designate the mask."

Intentionally or not, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have, in saddling Jesse and Céline with the regrets that accompany the passage of time, boldly advanced them from formless "everykid" chatterboxes to very particular, perhaps somewhat less likable adults. "When you're young," says Céline, "you believe there will be many people you'll connect with." Jesse and Céline, like Hawke (his own golden Hollywood marriage down the tubes), Delpy (still but a minor star), and all others navigating their 30s, have by now made choices that stick, ones that have closed off options. The exhilaration of Jesse and Céline's easy exchange--the blessed return to their charmed "amorous language"--is a bittersweet thrill. There's a sense that, as Jesse protests, our ability to desire is the only way to know we're alive. But there's no denying that while the pair's first meeting was about discovery, the current one is at least in part about escape.

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