Flappers and Philosophers
The story of the rise, when Luhrmann comes to retell it, takes the form of a kind of movie, projected in the night sky over the bay. The story of the fall, scratched out in a sanitarium by an exhausted survivor, takes the form of writing, which materializes in front of the images like a veil, or a barrier. For Luhrmann, it’s not enough that Fitzgerald’s words should tumble off the lips of the characters or murmur in voiceover, as they do with remarkable profusion and accuracy. He wants them to be a physical presence, as if the truth of The Great Gatsby lived somewhere between the verbal artifacts left to us in the present and an immaterial vision that someone dreamed in the past.
The image from the book that Luhrmann seizes on to summarize this longing is of Gatsby standing at night at the water’s edge, holding out his hand as if he could reach across the bay and touch the green light that hangs at the end of the Buchanans’ dock. When you think about this image, Luhrmann’s decision to film in 3-D, which at first seems so frivolous, makes perfect sense. He had no better way to open up for you the distance that can’t be bridged, or to make the glittering fantasy look as if it ought to be attainable.
To be disillusioned, and still to feel drawn to the persistence of someone else’s impossible desire: that is the emotional paradox Luhrmann wants you to share with Nick at the end of The Great Gatsby. He might have brought you to this point with less fuss and bother had he trusted Fitzgerald and the actors a little more—too often, he uses Nick’s voiceover to explain an event or a line of dialogue that simply should have been played—but despite that fault, he gets you to your catharsis. The question, going back to Dr. Perkins’s sanitarium, is: What does it cure?
Only this: the unnecessary illusion that a person’s heart, or a literary text, or a period of the past, is out there waiting for us, as solid and accessible as a taxicab, so that we can enter it at our pleasure. I feel that a skepticism underlies Luhrmann’s lush and strenuous showmanship, a conviction that we have to make a big effort to acknowledge our ignorance, break down our complacency, and imagine a way toward one another’s inner lives—not into them, but toward—and also toward our history, and the artistic achievements that long ago were turned into monuments.
Luhrmann’s idea that the imagined way must be made overwhelmingly eye-catching, sad and silly is of course an unnecessary illusion in itself—but I can live with it.
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It’s hard to think of any series of films, other than Michael Apted’s incomparable Up documentaries, that give you the sense of people’s lives changing over time that you get from Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and now Before Midnight. When Richard Linklater made the first of these films in 1995, the characters that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy played and helped to invent, Jesse and Celine, were in their 20s and footloose. When the characters found one another again in the second film, in 2004, Jess and Celine had been apart for nine years, and had aged into a few achievements and a few disappointments. They had something to give up, and also something to bring along, when they broke with their existing lives in order to be together. Now, in 2013, we find Jesse and Celine in their early 40s, when the weight of nine years of each other’s presence is threatening to break them apart.
Once again, the film is part character study, part colloquy, part experiment in near real-time filmmaking and part travelogue. On vacation in the south of Greece, along the Messenian Gulf, Jesse and Celine drive across, linger in, and stroll through a setting of sparkling beauty and picturesque architecture, and as they proceed from mid-morning through late evening, talking all the while, the feelings that these two gorgeous people have for one another keep shifting.
As in the earlier films, the sequences are exceptionally fluid. The great majority of Before Midnight comprises only four long, freely developing scenes, two of them shot on the move in very few takes, in which the conversations ramble anywhere and everywhere. But the talk always comes back to the same themes: freedom and responsibility, women’s lives and men’s. Jesse feels a duty to the teenage son he’s unwillingly left behind with his former wife; he misses the boy and resents the way his son sometimes confides in Celine and not him. For her part, Celine feels a duty to her work in environmental policy and to the possibility of being something other than a source of material for Jesse’s books. Why should a woman believe in romantic love, she wonders, or be expected to have maternal instincts? And what makes Jesse flatter himself to think that he’s any kind of a Henry Miller?
With questions like these being thrown about, Before Midnight lacks the sweet impulsiveness of the first film and the suspenseful tingle of the second. But it is as lovely to look at as the previous movies and as changeable in its moods, thanks in part to the wonderfully modulated cinematography of Christos Voudouris, and has some middle-aged satisfactions that are appropriate to Jesse and Celine. These include a willingness to let others into the conversation, an awareness that not every slammed door is final, and a keener sense of what the passage of time can mean. Like the other two, this is a film that breathes. It just holds on a little more before it’s willing to exhale.