100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Lovers, 5-1

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.


5) Before Sunrise (1995), directed by Richard Linklater

If Sabrina is a movie which is aided by the passage of time, Before Sunrise, a little ironically, is not. Making Before Sunrise the first movie of three about the same couple has robbed it of some power. We know an awful lot about how Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) will continue to build their relationship over the next two decades, and so the question hanging over the end of the film – thought and rethought as we review the landmarks of Vienna that Jesse and Celine have brushed up against and left their indelible mark upon, making the places feel so empty without the people – has been answered. We know they will meet again. But the reason why Before Sunrise still makes me misty is because the moment of farewell is so wrenching. Even if we know, they don’t. Delpy’s face bears a hopelessness that Hawke’s probably can’t. He misses her already, but she’s beyond that: she aches to see him again while he’s standing in front of her. Maybe it’s the sex in the park that did it, but more likely it’s the sense of destiny that young people who find each other seem to effortlessly slouch into. People their age, often as not, believe in the alignment of stars for unknown purposes; during that long, vivid Vienna night, everything seems to fall into place for them. They have a poem written about them. They manage to score a bottle of wine from a sympathetic bartender. Their tiff ends without any serious fallout and when they wake up, the music of an older, simpler time serenades them. They should know that they’ve been bound together when they get on their separate trains, but young people, even when the facts surround them, don’t always know how to grapple with the sums. Before Sunset and Before Midnight will ask us to question the strength and longevity of that binding, but in Before Sunrise it is unquestionable.

“I don’t want to be a great story,” Celine tells Jesse. She’s discussing what she knowingly refers to as a quintessential “male fantasy,” in which a guy meets a cute French girl and has some consequences-free sex before never seeing her again. But she is a great story, or at least half of one. Even if the stars don’t always align – even if Celine and Jesse are not guided together by some force greater than themselves, which of course they aren’t really – there is a magic in what happens. The magic of small things is part of Before Sunrise, and not merely because the two of them run into a palm reader at a cafe. There’s magic in the lights of the carnival games and magic in the sunset which falls on them. There is magic in a pinball machine and a cemetery alike, and in the closed shops lit dimly in the small hours. There’s the small magic of a curious American who speaks no German asking the pretty girl across the aisle if she knows what that other couple was arguing about. What makes Before Sunrise a great story, and in particular a great love story, is the way that everything feels normal just about all the time. So few movies give us a chance to feel like we could do that, like we might be able to replicate something like what happens within our two hours. Before Sunrise could happen. All it would take is a little courage to start a conversation, and a little luck in finding someone who would follow you to the observation car.

4) When Harry Met Sally… (1989), directed by Rob Reiner

The last great formula romantic comedy made in this country shamelessly panders to our genre expectations. (If you want to call The 40-Year-Old Virgin a great formula romantic comedy, I’m not sure I’d argue with you…at the same time, the romantic part is not what makes that movie work.) Harry and Sally simply have to end up together, even if the movie’s entire buildup seems to be headed in the other direction. Proverbially, sleeping with your best friend is a great way to not have the best friend anymore, and When Harry Met Sally seems to teach us that lesson with the enormous rainclouds hanging over Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan for most of the movie’s final stretch. Harry tries to be gentlemanly, but is too distant for it to work; Sally can read his confusion and awkwardness and reacts accordingly. They blame each other. What they learn, of course, is that one can’t live without the other; it’s a lesson that isn’t transferable, which the filmmakers know. Yet I’ve never had the heart to take the movie down a notch for that; When Harry Met Sally… is so chipper for so long, even on the subjects of divorce and infidelity and wagon wheel coffee tables that it couldn’t possibly end on that note. What a tremendous bummer it would have been (though genuinely memorable) if they could do nothing more than glare at each other while Jess and Marie toasted them at their wedding. Jess is funny about it, saying that if either of them had found Harry or Sally attractive, the wedding would never have happened; we might have been left with a scene wondering what kind of lovely friendship might have been available to Harry and Sally if they’d found each other just a little less attractive.

But the movie doesn’t go there, and instead we’re treated to all sorts of charming little moments with Harry and Sally that are the stuff of a budding friendship. Sally effortlessly punctures Harry’s pretensions about death; Harry calls attention to Sally’s hatefully specific restaurant order. (Real talk: if I had been Harry in that situation, having known that woman for a few hours, and she had ordered like that in a diner in front of me, I would have seriously considered hitching the rest of the way to New York.) The two of them figure out they like each other, which is no small thing to figure out in a movie. It’s one of the few movies about adults which think about a mature friendship happening without something like “World War II” or “my dead, dead child” bringing people together; more than that, it’s a rarity among romantic movies that it is interested in friendship as much as it is in sex. The vast majority of romantic pictures, either because it is tradition or because it saves time, make like James Fleet in Four Weddings and a Funeral and merely mutter “The thunderbolt!” while marveling at how much their primaries love one another. The best moments of When Harry Met Sally… are by and large gentle and funny. We can watch Harry and Sally in bed (watching Casablanca, of all things) from their separate apartments and not feel voyeuristic in the least. Relationships are meant to be exclusive; friendships are easier to be part of if you’re a third party.

3) Picnic (1955), directed by Joshua Logan

Ha ha! You all thought this was going to be about William Holden and Kim Novak? As if! (Seriously, though: that scene where they dance together is as sultry as it gets, but there’s not another good scene with them in the movie.) No, the couple in Picnic that I find just relentlessly fascinating is the Rosalind Russell-Arthur O’Connell pairing. Rosemary and Howard are both getting older. The two of them have been together, more or less, for a while; they date the way that ’50s teens and young people date, sort of going places together but never claiming any sort of exclusivity. Howard is fond of Rosemary, the spinster schoolteacher. Rosemary tolerates Howard. He drinks too much, and too openly. His business is stable, but he’ll never be a rich man like Alan (Cliff Robertson). He looks more like Arthur O’Connell than William Holden. At the picnic, the whiskey he brings ends up in a teenage girl’s stomach, and she makes herself sick off of it; it ends up in Rosemary’s stomach too, and it makes her mean. After Hal (Holden) refuses her advances, she tells the girl’s mother that Hal give her the whiskey. Howard seems endlessly patient and eminently good-natured. Rosemary believes in a very ’50s propriety and knows that her status as an unmarried woman in her forties puts her outside of nice society; the only world she can belong to is the world of school, which holds no real charm for her or for anyone else in town. In the traditional Kansas town where Picnic takes place, everyone seems to be sinking in their sour puddles of desperation, but no one has bricks around her ankles quite like Rosemary, who can hear the incessant tick-tick-ticking that goes on even in this sleepy town. Propriety goes away when, still a little drunk and more than a little hurt, she tries to get Howard to commit to marrying her. Howard gives her the ol’ “lemme sleep on it,” although it’s colored with more “maybe you should sleep on it, actually” given her state of mind.

Howard has an interesting night – he shelters Hal, who’s absconded with Alan’s car and Alan’s girl and is now in some trouble with the cops – and decides he’s going to wait on Rosemary a little while longer. It’s barely daylight when the two of them are driving off to get married and on then on to a honeymoon. Howard, bless his heart, has the will of wet cardboard. Rosemary sees his car, assumes that he is coming to take her away that very morning, and quickly packs, resigns from her job, and stirs up an immense fuss in the house. Desperation meets spinelessness in this moment, or maybe it’s just pity. In either event, Howard barely says a word in his own defense as Rosemary, who had proposed marriage the night before, ensures it as a fait accompli the morning after. Hal and Madge will decide later that morning that they’re going to stay together as far as they’re able, but the scene where Hal pleads and the scene where Madge finally bucks her mother are empty compared to the humanity of Howard and Rosemary’s whirlwind engagement. Young people being courageous is not quite as gripping as older people silently building the foundations of a miserable marriage. Marriage will only make Rosemary more controlling and Howard more introspective; she’ll become shrill and he’ll become an honest-to-goodness drunk.

2) A Single Man (2009), directed by Tom Ford

We don’t see a lot of Jim (Matthew Goode) in A Single Man, which makes sense, seeing as he’s dead. When we flash back to him, though, it’s clear that he is a man totally unlike George (Colin Firth), his partner. George’s smiles never break into full grins even when he’s laughing; Jim lives with a smirk on his face, giving off the impression of the kind of happy smugness that feels like a sneer in the face of a malcontent world. It’s easy to see how George comes to rely on him; he even leaned on him to get up, in a weird way. George likes his lie-ins and needs to take the time to work into a day, where Jim was the jump-out-of-bed sort. It’s lonelier and grayer, quite literally, without Jim in bed with him. (If George had died in a car accident, as Jim did, and Jim received the call, it’s easy to imagine him reacting violently to the news. George is more subdued, as if someone nailed his hand to his armchair and thus he cannot writhe or do much more than cry weakly and unpredictably.) Ford’s debut is occasionally a little reminiscent of Orson Welles’ comment about “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had,” but in those early moments of the picture we can see his command of color and light, which of course turns into a command of George’s unrelenting loneliness. There’s no one to tell about Jim, no one who will really understand, and there’s no point in living without him. A Single Man is a story about loss and the desperate ways George tries to fill in the gaps Jim’s death left in his own life. There are pills. And a plan to commit suicide. And a prostitute. And an old friend. And a student. There are possibilities everywhere, from promising (the student, played by Nicholas Hoult) to plain dismaying (the old friend, played by Julianne Moore). But none of them seem fulfilling, and even the best of them come up short of keeping him alive.

Loss brings forth a Newton’s cradle of forgetting and remembering. When he wakes up, or teaches, or goes about his daily business, it is possible to momentarily forget that he is now a single man – more a widower than anything else – but the act of forgetting only precipitates remembering again. When he does remember, it is powerful blow in the ribs or kidneys, which lingers for a while and aches while it lingers. A Single Man poses a scenario in which even the relief of confession is largely unavailable to him; given the 1962 setting, there’s no way that he could come out to anyone without essentially making himself unemployable for life, or a social leper until he finally does himself in. It’s been months since Jim died in his snowy car wreck, and it shows on George’s face. Firth’s consistently strong performance rests on looking more or less impassive in most scenes, not because he isn’t in pain but because a person can only take so much punishment before he goes limp. George isn’t quite there yet, but he is well on his way; in the interim, he will appear stoic in public and be a shambles in his own mind.

1) Before Sunset (2004), directed by Richard Linklater

Before Sunset is the only movie on this list that I think stands on the same plateau as CasablancaSunset Boulevard, The Shop Around the Corner, and Brokeback Mountain. It is a spare movie, less interested in Paris than its predecessor was in Vienna. It’s also brief, like a few macaroons compared to the cornucopia of an epic romance like Gone with the Wind, so short that it very nearly unfolds in real time. “There’s gotta be something more to love than commitment,” Jesse says from experience. There are hundreds of things more, but at least as important as any other element is hope. Nine years after seeing each other, kept apart by a funeral that could not have come at a worse time, they pick up almost effortlessly. Before Sunset is at its heart a hopeful movie, one that seems to believe that starting again after a decade of silence is as easy as opening a novel and pulling out the bookmark. It’s not perfectly smooth – I come back to Celine freaking out in the car, angry at Jesse and his book for prodding up so much feeling, angry at herself for losing the adventure and romance and hope in herself – but it’s possible.

Before Sunrise makes us believe that there’s something special Jesse and Celine share; Before Sunset is the proof of it.  It is a miracle that Jesse is not bitter that Celine failed to return to Vienna, and it is a miracle that Celine has the gumption to seek out Jesse when she knows he’ll be in Paris. They are still more or less the same people, but more so; Jesse’s a more rounded person, and Celine is less given to flights of temper. It makes for a smoother experience than Before Sunrise (and is so different from Before Midnight that it’ll make your head spin), and the effect is it’s just about them. That’s the beauty of Before Sunset; like the song says, it’s about “you and I/And no one else,” and that means this is a movie which doesn’t call much attention to its individual moments. For all its fluidity, Before Sunrise is absolutely broken up into scenes; Before Midnight has three arguments and some filler. Before Sunset is broken up essentially into interiors and exteriors, the places where you can sit down and play a song on the guitar and the places where you’d have to walk around like a troubadour to do it, the places where you can dance like a fool and the places where you have to hold it in.

The first time I saw this movie, I waited for the splash of acid at the end, a lemon juice that would keep the apples from browning and bite at my tongue. But it doesn’t end like that; the hope extends all the way through the picture until finally:

Celine: Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.

Jesse: I know.

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