Since we’re living in a post-9/11 world -- it’s the equivalent of year zero on our new psychic calendar -- we assume our serious contemporary arts will reflect and acknowledge that fact. How could they not? The day changed everything.
It’s possible, of course, to give movies a lot of slack on this -- especially summer movies, good or bad, which primarily are meant as a respite from the everyday concerns of contemporary life.
However, when an American fictional film grounded in naturalism attempts to be serious about the meaning of life right now, one expects 9/11 as a shared point of painful reference. That’s certainly true for a movie that primarily consists of two earnestly sincere young people talking about how the past nine years have changed them.
Thus, while it’s a touching and even lyrical movie, Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset” perplexes me. It has no such references -- and it seems inherent that it should. I found this lack of context confusing and troubling, as if “Casablanca” were ignoring World War II.
The film is a sequel to 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” in which Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine meet on a train and have a brief encounter in Vienna. Now they are in Paris and meet again for a short time before he must leave.
Their talk is intimately revelatory. She confesses her disappointments in love and sex, he of his loveless marriage. They both want meaning. What they never mention is 9/11. It is almost as if it never happened.
Even if this sequel was conceived before the event, why would the impact not be addressed afterward?
It’s not as if “Before Sunset” is avowedly apolitical. One of the more revealing moments comes when Celine talks about her horror living in New York from 1996 to 1999, when a police officer advised her to buy a gun. In Paris, she is an environmental activist who believes the world is a mess right now.
Hawke’s Jesse is a novelist. And he, too, lives in New York.
Wait a minute, I thought, when this piece of back story was revealed. They both lived in New York but have nothing to say about 9/11 after not seeing each other for nine years? How can that be?
I’ve been trying to figure out why Linklater, Kim Krizan, Hawke and Delpy -- who all collaborated on the “Before Sunset” screenplay and dialogue -- might have wanted “Before Sunset” to be this way. My first instinct was that they were afraid too much specificity would date the universal themes -- a common artistic concern. But a not-insignificant plot point turns on the fact that Nina Simone died in 2003.
It may be that, since the charming Celine is a French activist who humorously chides freedom-fries Americans, they didn’t know how to have her address 9/11 without making her alienating -- to us and to Jesse. Would she be outraged or be chiding about the American response?
Too, it could be they believe the memories of 9/11 are just too painful to address openly in a “romantic” movie. Perhaps that’s best left to Michael Moore. But that leaves a hole.
At one point, Celine asks Jesse what they would talk about were they to die on this night. She then concedes, “OK, we’re not going to die tonight. That was an extreme example.”
But a lesson of Sept. 11 -- especially for two sensitive romantics who have lived in New York -- is that they actually could die arbitrarily, just like that. And Celine and Jesse should realize that.
Whatever the reason for the omission, it’s a case of failed nerve. It’s still a fine movie -- few filmmakers even attempt to go this far these days. Nevertheless, it needed to go further.