De-Lovely and Before Sunset (review)

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Unabashed Romance

“This is one of those avant garde things,” the elderly Cole Porter snorts amusedly as De-Lovely opens. He’s observing his own life and career unfolding before him, commenting from “offstage” on the action. It’s the most unusual and delightful film-within-a-film structure I’ve ever seen, but this meta-flick is never so wrapped up in its own cleverness to forget to be heartrendingly romantic. As should be anything to do with Cole Porter and his music.

There were tears running down my face from the get-go of De-Lovely, and I’m not even sure why. Maybe it was that enormous lump of nostalgia in my throat, nostalgia for places I’ve never been in times before I was born. “I spent 10 years in Paris,” Porter tosses off here, except he’s really deliciously casually sophisticated Kevin Kline, “just having fun.” And not just any Paris, but Paris in the 1920s. Oh, how I yearn for Paris in the 20s.
Which is probably why I cried, for De-Lovely — as much a valentine to Porter as a biography of him — is redolent with romantic history, following Porter’s career as it took him from one iconic moment of the 20th century to another, from Paris in the 20s to Broadway in the 30s to Hollywood in the 50s. And woven through it all are Porter’s own tunes, the soundtrack of those impossibly fabulous places and times now the soundtrack for his life. There’s not a lot of concern devoted to placing those songs on the Porter timeline where he wrote them, which is perfect: Instead, they occur at the moments, perhaps, that consciously inspired them, or at those moments that serve to highlight the unconscious inspirations for his work in Porter’s complicated life.

Cuz tunes like “Let’s Misbehave” and “Night & Day” prompt knowing nods and little a-ha noises in their contexts here, illustrating Porter’s relationship with his devoted but long-suffering wife and muse, Linda (Ashley Judd: Twisted, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), who knew all about her husband’s weakness for handsome young men. And if she didn’t quite encourage Cole in his extramarital adventures, she went into the marriage fully aware of his proclivities, and loving him too much to care. At first. At least as it’s depicted here in De-Lovely. I don’t know how strictly the film adheres to the reality of Porter’s life and work. It’d still be a provocative take on what drives an artist even if it were entirely fictional.

Maybe Cole Porter never did, as is depicted here, coach the handsome young leading man of his latest Broadway show in how to sing “Night & Day.” Maybe, as in another scene awash in sweetly old-fashioned Hollywood amour, Cole never did woo Linda by dancing her around a Parisian cafe. But Kline (The Emperor’s Club, The Road to El Dorado), in the role he was born to play, is brilliant, balancing respect for the art with an eagerness to understand the artist. And the film is never so cautious that it’s afraid to take some chances with Porter’s tunes. Some purists are up in arms over the renderings of the likes of “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” and “Begin the Beguine” by modern pop and rock stars such as Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow (other performers include Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, and Robbie Williams, as well as Kline and Judd). But music is alive, and if not every song is an unqualified success — most are perfectly lovely if not definitive interpretations — it still left me humming and dancing on air.

Paris in the 00s
Before Sunset, as exquisitely romantic in its own way as De-Lovely, didn’t leave me dancing on air, but strolling on it, feeling like I’d just spent unexpected time with dear old friends and learned something new about them along the way. This is a perfectly perfect little film, down to earth and honest about love and sex and human relationships in ways that very few films ever are. It’s so charmingly simple a film, so absorbing and ambitious in its simplicity. I love, love, love this movie.

Those old friends, Jesse (Ethan Hawke: Taking Lives, Training Day) and Celine (Julie Delpy)? The funny thing is, they’re not old friends of mine. I’d never seen 1995’s Before Sunrise until the night before the Sunset screening, though now I’m kicking myself: How could I have let this movie, the first one, get away from me all these years? I was absolutely riveted by it, stunned by its anti-movie-ness, by its candor and sincerity. And I can’t imagine how greatly I would have anticipated Before Sunset if it had meant finally learning, after nine long years, what became of these two twentysomethings, who met on a Eurail train and spent a single evening together wandering the streets of Vienna, talking about life and love. My mind was blown, in a way that few movies can do, by this, Generation X’s Annie Hall, the movie that defines and encapsulates my generation’s attitudes about the whole love-and-sex thing: practical, egalitarian, casual about sex but cautious about leaving oneself open to heartbreak. If in a century someone wants to know what young people were like at the end of the twentieth century, here is the generational zeitgeist in a bottle.

And now, in Sunset, we have a portrait of Generation X a decade on, exhausted with those practicalities and haunted by the fleeting moment in time when the barricades came down and we left ourselves vulnerable to the dreaded heartbreak. Cuz we see here, as Jesse and Celine meet again, not quite accidentally, in Paris, that they forged a far more powerful connection in that one short night than even they suspected at the time, and that it has affected their lives in the interim dramatically. They wander the city — the real Paris, not a touristy Eiffel Tower and Mona Lisa Paris — catching up in the brief late afternoon before Jesse has to catch a plane back to New York. How can it be that simply eavesdropping on the conversation of two people can be so engaging, so compulsively watchable? But it is. Unfolding in real time, this is 80 delightful, contemplative minutes of learning how we never escape the past… and if you watch both Sunrise and Sunset back to back, it’s even more poignant: Jesse’s story, for instance, in the earlier film about growing up with miserable parents who stayed together for his sake resonates anew as we learn about Jesse’s life today.

Before Sunset is a starker, in some ways, than the first film: there’re no Ferris wheels or wacky locals lending Jesse and Celine’s time together an air of larkish adventure. This is blunt reality today. But Sunset is just as luminous, with a warm fluidity that feels entirely off-the-cuff and improvised — though it’s all carefully scripted, by director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) and Hawke and Delpy themselves — and tightly rehearsed. And it’s even more illuminating, full of hard-won but nevertheless delicate wisdom, mysteries of human relationships.

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for sexual content
official site | IMDB

Before Sunset
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language and sexual references
official site | IMDB

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