Sundance Film Festival 2013 | Before Midnight and Upstream Color
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
It's 2004 all over again. Two of the most high-profile, anticipated premieres at Sundance '13 are nine-years-later encores.
The first, of course, is Before Midnight, Richard Linklater's trilogy-capping return to the heady pleasures of a feature-length conversation. Before Sunset ended on such a perfect note—a heart-stopping ellipsis, a magical moment at the crossroads—that checking back in with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) seemed to me like a mistake waiting to happen. But then, I thought the same thing when I heard that Linklater was making a sequel to his original 1995 Before Sunrise, which had a pretty wonderful ending, too. What's clear now, if it wasn't before, is that the director and his stars/cowriters have been laboring on a grand, beautiful experiment: the life of a romance onscreen, decade by decade, in all its gory detail.
Here we are again, after nine years have passed offscreen and on, with Hawke's sardonic American writer and Delpy's feisty French philanthropist. Now in their forties, the two are not only together but the proud parents of twin daughters. "How long has it been since we just walked around and bullshitted?" Jesse asks Céline early in the film, as they embark on another of their chatty, scenic odysseys. For audiences, the answer is much too long; as with estranged kindred spirits, we don't realize how much we've missed these loquacious lovers until we're in their company again. First in a car—shades of Kiarostami—then among friends, and finally on the streets of Greece, the two fall back into the sparkling, lightly philosophical banter that's come to define this wonderfully wordy franchise. Nobody writes dialogue—funny, thoughtful and organic—like the power trio of Linklater, Hawke and Delpy.
Yet those expecting sweet nothings and star-lit pillow talk should prepare for the way that Jesse and Céline's union, like most real ones, has shifted and evolved over the years. If Sunrise was about the euphoria of falling in love and Sunset was about the bittersweet passion of reuniting, Midnight is about the hard, sometimes exasperating work of keeping a relationship together. (Without revealing how things play out, let's say that we've never seen these two go at each other the way they do here.) I'm done second-guessing the continuation of the story. At this point, I want one of these films every nine years for the rest of my life.
The week's other big homecoming came from MIA indie maverick Shane Carruth. Primer, the filmmaker's impossibly complicated debut, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. He's back this year with long-overdue second feature Upstream Color, another sci-fi head-scratcher that proves the first one was no fluke. Trying to summarize the plot would be an exercise in…well, not futility, as Carruth has actually written something comparatively linear. But breaking down this lyrical oddity, about memory, attraction and mind-altering parasites, would do little justice to what it's like to experience the mad thing firsthand.
What I can say is that, from an aesthetic point of view, Upstream Color is a quantum leap forward. Having apparently ingested a steady diet of Terrence Malick movies, Carruth unleashes an intoxicating, cross-cutting flurry of images, driven by his own buzzing-and-swelling score. But while there's no trace of pseudo-scientific shoptalk—the film communicates its most outlandish elements through purely visual means—this is unmistakably the product of the same mind that dreamt up Primer. The aversion to audience hand-holding, the disorientation tactics and the use of science fiction for its metaphoric possibilities all mark Upstream Color as a Carruth joint. For a while there, I was afraid I'd need a time machine of my own to see a "new" film from this director. It's nice to have him back.