If there’s one thing that French films have taught me over the years, it’s that the French seem to have a hard time believing in romance. Certainly not the Hollywood kind anyway. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that one of the most recent romantic films set in Paris isn’t actually a French one.
I first saw Before Sunset by Richard Linklater when it came out in 2004. I sat in the front row of the Dendy cinema in Newtown (Sydney), squirming with delight throughout the entire screening. Somehow I felt so damn happy watching a film which is basically just two people having a conversation. Everyone clapped loudly at the end of it.
The film opens in Paris nine years after a fateful night in Vienna, depicted so wonderfully in the first movie, Before Sunrise. Now we see Jesse the American (Ethan Hawke), go on to be a writer, reading at Shakespeare & Co. He looks decidedly older and perhaps world-wearier as well. It’s at this bookstore that he’s finally reunited with Celine (Julie Delpy), the woman who inspired the book he wrote. The two haven’t seen each other since the night they spent together.
(During my stay in Paris this year in July, I popped along to this legendary bookshop to see the editor of The Paris Review speak. The pic above was taken by the bookstore photographer — that’s me in the back corner on the far right.)
A few weeks later, on a gloriously warm and sunny afternoon in August, Josh and I retraced the rest of the film after watching it in our little apartment. Josh, not exactly known for his love of romantic films, watched it for the first time and couldn’t help but feel its magic too.
After Jesse and Celine encounter each other in the bookstore, they go for a walk and end up at typical Parisian cafe. But they have other things on their mind and a lot of ground to cover, so they don’t pay too much attention to their surrounds. Understandable, given how much they have to say to each other, how much catching up they have to do.
It was my friend Gemma who tipped me off about Le Pure Cafe (which is the cafe in the film), and she was totally right to rave about the menu. We had one of our best meals in Paris that afternoon. My entree was tartare de courgettes et tomates confites, which tasted like summer, followed by boudin noir, puree maison et pommes fruits. A modern twist on an old classic: blood sausage.
After Jesse and Celine have coffee, they go for a walk along the Promenade Plantée. It’s a beautiful backdrop for their absorbing conversation; they finally recall the night they spent in Vienna. But what the film doesn’t quite show is the architectural feat that the Promenade actually is. It’s not merely a beautiful garden; it’s actually a parkway built on an old railway. It’s an elevated park surrounded by buildings, the likes of which is found in only a few places in the world. Amazing.
In many ways the first movie, Before Sunrise, was more romantic. Two young strangers meeting on a train and over the course of one night they connect and fall madly in love. And it’s a beautiful fantasy that probably happens from time to time.
But there is so much more depth in the way the fully grown adult versions of those two meet in Paris. They have messier lives, with unresolved questions and a lot of baggage as well. But it’s easier to relate to these flawed beings because we all make mistakes, we couple with the wrong people and we hurt other people whether we try to or not. And all of these reasons is why Before Sunset is so magnificent.
In just over an hour the film shows just how complicated people’s lives can become, so far removed from their younger unencumbered selves; and yet maybe, just maybe, it’s possible for love to bloom again despite everything. That it’s possible for a second chance by the side of the Seine.