(THROWBACK!) “It was nice to have met you.”

Published on September 13th, 2011

Alex writes about romance in film, focusing on… wait, what? Originally run on July 29, 2011.

When The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was released in late 2009, it seemed like people didn’t really like it. I’m aware that a lot of critics dug it, and it received an impressive thirteen Academy Award nominations, but normal people didn’t seem to care for it much, and ‘normal’ is the only class of person I really care about. “I could never tell what the older Daisy was saying,” said a friend. “Brad Pitt just wanted to get to look like he did in Thelma & Louise again,” said almost every person who saw the movie. “It’s just like Forrest Gump,” said College Humor. But the main reason the movie didn’t seem to be well liked by most viewers is the same reason I kind of loved it: time.

Pictured: the reason Pitt signed on.

There aren’t a lot of good romance movies out there. There are a lot of romance movies, yes, but few of them are actually good, and the best moments in the ones that don’t suck tend to be good for reasons outside of the actual romance in question. The best non-comedy scene in Going the Distance is Charlie Day’s final mini-speech to Justin Long, or Matthew Gray Gubler’s oddly natural, fourth wall-breaking speech about a character we never see in 500 Days of Summer. I don’t care for romances in shitty Sarah Jessica Parker romcoms that are clearly not aimed at me, nor do I enjoy the Tom Cruise & Michelle Monaghan ‘do you care about Ethan Hunt as a person now?’ romance aspects in action movies that are aimed at me, but I do like a good romance in a movie that isn’t really aimed at any particular group. The problem is, of course, that so few of these movies actually exist.

When I watched the 1995 film Before Sunrise on DVD in 2004, I thought it was kind of… slow. It was 100 or so minutes of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walking around Vienna and getting to know each other, just having conversations and generally being boring. There were no comically mid-90s alternative songs by Toad the Wet Sprocket on the soundtrack, and Hawke never punched anybody for looking at Delpy the wrong way or for saying Eddie Vedder is an overrated vocalist*. The premise of the movie was that Hawke (playing a character that is unfortunately named Jesse) invites Delpy (playing an appropriately-named Celine) to temporarily pause her trip home to France and spend the night walking around Vienna with him before he catches a 9:30am flight back to his home in America. They spend the night getting to know each other, having incredibly personal conversations, and avoiding plays about cows that people on the street invite them to. The movie ends with the pair going their separate ways; Celine back to Paris, Jesse to America. And despite the pair not exchanging phone numbers or addresses, they plan to meet each other again, on the same Vienna train platform they say goodbye at, six months from that day.

*I suppose I should point out that I was 18 in 2004, which was before I realized
that I kind of like movies that break away from 
a typical narrative structure,
much like I was still unaware that Garden State isn’t very good.

I really don’t know what I was expecting from Before Sunrise when I watched it; I don’t think I was seriously expecting an angsty, Lisa Loeb-loving Hawke to essentially play his Reality Bites character in Austria. I mostly watched the movie because I had a six-pack of tickets to the local art house theatre, and the sequel Before Sunset would be playing in said theatre soon. Since Sunset sounded vaguely interesting, I figured I should see the first film before I used one of my pre-purchased tickets on its sequel. And despite not really caring for its predecessor, I saw Before Sunset anyway, finding it infinitely more engaging than Sunrise.

Before Sunset sees Jesse and Celine reunite by chance, kind of, when Jesse is in a Paris bookstore for the last stop on his tour promoting a novel that is clearly influenced by the pair’s night in Vienna. They never reunited in Austria; Jesse showed up, but Celine had to tend to her grandmother’s unfortunately timed passing*. Despite this, the pair easily slips back into conversation in Paris, discussing what has changed – and recognizing what hasn’t – in the nine years since they met. And that’s basically the whole movie.

*Grandma was not a fan of White Fang, it seems.

I suppose the reason that I liked Before Sunset and not Sunrise was that, despite being very similar films, the topics of discussion in Sunset were simply more interesting to the eighteen-year-old me. I wasn’t interested in the ideas of self-fulfillment present in the first movie; when I was eighteen, watching a good movie was pretty much the most fulfilling thing I could do. But ever since wondering as a twelve-year-old why the thirteen-year-old kids seemed so big, and then a year later wondering why the twelve-year-olds suddenly looked so small, I have always been interested in the passage of time and what that means for a person. I might not have known that one year age difference was the reason the older kids weren’t playing Crazy Bones with us twelve-year-olds, but I knew something was different. And that’s why Before Sunset was interesting to me: Celine and Jesse essentially spent all of their time together talking about the one thing in life I find most interesting.

There was another element I loved about Before Sunset, and it was also the one thing I thought was undeniably loveable about Before Sunrise: Delpy and Hawke have almost incomparable on-screen chemistry, and you actually feel like they are interested in one another. Rarely do you engage with a couple because you feel like they are as interested in each other off-screen as they are on it; typically, you just kind of go with it because the script tells you that they’re in love, or you inject your own desires into the couple. Despite enjoying their characters’ arcs, I never actually felt like John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer would go out for drinks apart from some season ending wrap party. They’ll always talk about each other in the press in a glowing fashion, but likely out of nothing more than the fact that they each seem like genuinely nice people. However, if you told me Delpy and Hawke dated for a decade, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m almost more surprised that they haven’t.

The reason most romance movies don’t work is precisely that reason: chemistry. An actor can give a great singular performance, but if they have no chemistry with their acting partner/alleged lover, the romance fails. John Cusack might have been perfect as Rob Gordon, but the romance aspect in High Fidelity fails because Cusack has more chemistry with Lisa Bonet than he does with the Danish bootleg version of Robin Wright Penn, Iben Hjejle. And any piece of media built around a couple will eventually fail if the central pieces do not seem believable; former superfans of The Office gave up on the show when Pam and Jim stopped being believable and instead became annoying, and Friday Night Lights fans forgave the series’ more ludicrous secondary plot lines because Coach and Mrs. Coach never stopped feeling like a real married couple. If we didn’t believe that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy really wanted to see each other again, we would never believe that Jesse and Celine would go back to that Vienna train platform in six months.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a pretty great movie, but the romance in the movie simply doesn’t work; Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki’s relationship in The Big Bang Theory is probably more compelling. And that’s likely why so many people passionately disliked the movie: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, despite normally being decent-to-good actors, simply couldn’t sell the idea that they were unquestionably in love from the moment they met until the last time they saw each other. That they failed at making me think this is perfectly acceptable, though; since I generally don’t believe that type of thing is possible, I can’t expect an actor to really make me believe it is. But another thing standing in the way of their odds were the visual aesthetics of the movie. Benjamin Button was directed by David Fincher, a well-noted perfectionist who is often compared to Stanley Kubrick because of his dedication to getting a perfect full frame shot every time, often requiring dozens of takes to do so. Robert Duvall (and surely others) has said that too many takes are the enemy of acting, and while that may or may not be true*, repetition is absolutely the enemy of chemistry. With Pitt and Blanchett presumably delivering their lines a dozen or more times to each other, any sort of natural chemistry is bound to be trampled by sheer repetition; you can’t be natural when you have to make sure to hit your mark within a centimeter. That’s not really a knock on Fincher, as he is debatably my favourite filmmaker because of this infamous precision… I just doubt he’ll ever direct a film with a compelling romance because of this. Contrasting that, indie superdirector Richard Linklater is the man behind the camera on Before Sunrise and Sunset, and each film employs a number of long takes, with Sunset going eleven minutes without a cut at one point. The visuals in these movies simply aren’t considered as important as the chemistry between the two actors; nothing else is allowed to get in the way. And that’s kind of how it’s supposed to be.

*Although I suppose I trust Tom Hagen’s philosophies on acting.

There are, comparatively, a pretty small number of times in your life where you begin a conversation and figure out, very quickly, that this is somebody you naturally get along with in a way you do with few other people. Maybe you both like to write 3000-plus word blog posts that nobody will ever read, or perhaps you share an odd fascination with Yak Baks. And I’m not talking about a necessarily romantic connection, but friendship as well, and it is almost unreasonable to think that somebody would have any more than even fifteen real, quality, great friends in their lives. When these realizations do happen, it catches you off guard because of how rarely it occurs, and it is because you are caught off guard that the whole thing is so pleasant. The same goes for acting chemistry; it needs to be spontaneous and unforced. Pitt and Blanchett could never be caught off guard; there had to be too much thought put into the visuals for them to really focus on each other. Before Sunrise and Sunset both allowed for natural reactions, from Hawke and Delpy contributing to the screenplay* to allowing for improvisation while the cameras were rolling**. And it is this naturalism that allows for Jesse and Celine’s chemistry to feel more real: when the actors are allowed to put more of themselves into a character, naturally their performance will be more believable.

*Uncredited on Sunrise, credited on Sunset.
**Before Sunset even not-so-secretly gives us Hawke’s feelings on his dissolving
marriage to Uma Thurman.

Most people seemed to despise how long Benjamin Button was, whereas I kind of loved how much it was able to cover in – all things considered – a brisk 165 minutes. The movie is about, at its core, one life lived in a peculiar fashion, and the movie covers that whole life. It may not do an effective job of depicting a transformative friendship/relationship to its audience, but it does show us how few times that will actually happen over our lives, with Benjamin meeting less than ten people he really connects with throughout the film. And while Before Sunrise may only depict one instance of this happening, it shows us how compelling it can be when it does.

The actual romance of Daisy and Benjamin’s relationship may not be particularly engaging*, but the suggestion that they needed to run into each other at the right time in each person’s life for a legitimate romance to occur is interesting. At certain times, they were able to be friends, at other times lovers, and there are times where Benjamin completely regrets seeing Daisy as she annoyingly monologues about herself for the length of an entire dinner. And to say that doesn’t accurately reflect one of the more interesting aspects of human interaction is not giving the movie its proper due. It’s likely that you have a friend who, had circumstances played out differently at another time in your life, you may have dated instead of just being friends with, or you might have a friend who you never would have been friends with if you met at a different age. I’m confident that a decent relationship was squashed by various timings not matching up, and I’m almost certain that James and I would never have been friends had we gone to high school together. And like Benjamin’s odd way of aging, these things work in reverse as well: you have certainly dated people in the past who you would never date if you met now, and you likely remain friends with more than a couple people if only because of something you shared over a decade ago. A 40 year-old Benjamin probably never dates Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), nor does the younger visually/older mentally Benjamin work for the bombastic boat captain played by Jared Harris.

*That the movie isn’t concerned with romance is proven when the
times they are implied to be most in love are breezed through in a montage.

I have watched Before Sunrise again since initially seeing it at 18, and I actually like it quite a bit now. There are plenty of aspects I still don’t care for: visually it remains kind of boring, and the sound effects that come from Hawke’s leather jacket make every hug in the movie sound ridiculous. But the one thing I found enjoyable in watching Sunrise for the first time – the chemistry between the actors – made me like it enough to want to watch it again in a couple years to see what’s changed. However, the experience of discovering that I kind of liked the movie was closer to what Benjamin says when describing how he felt coming back to New Orleans after years away: “Coming home, you realize what’s changed is you.” I wasn’t interested in seeing what changed about the movie, because the events in it are etched into film, and expecting a movie to change into a Choose Your Own (Existential) Adventure book is completely absurd. I was, however, interested in the way I approached the movie later, finding out that the themes I used to dislike are actually kind of interesting. And its sequel remains spectacular, possibly getting even better as I started to like more about Before Sunrise. Nine years later, things have faded from the characters*, and we learn new things about them**. My reaction to these movies has been altered with time, just like time altered Jesse and Celine’s personalities and reactions to each other, but what remains is the thing neither could avoid: a natural chemistry that can’t be faked and can never really be expected.

*Jesse’s goofy gestures are gone, and Celine seems to be a less confident and romantic person.
**Jesse has started to understand why his parents remained in a loveless marriage, Celine’s
accent makes her repeated pronunciation of the word ‘waltz’ adorable.

When Elizabeth leaves Benjamin Button, the only thing that remains from her is a note that simply says, “It was nice to have met you.” There is no thought in the note about what she liked about him, or anything they actually did together, as that’s not really what matters. They’ll never see each other again, but what will always remain are the remnants of a chemistry that will ensure they remember each other. As for Daisy and Benjamin, their story ends as definitely as a story can: we see the death of each character, so we know there is no more to see from them. And since Jesse and Celine’s story ends ambiguously, we are unsure if we will get more from their lives, if there will be another sequel. The prospect of one will always interest me, but I don’t really need there to be one. Actually meeting a person that you have a natural chemistry with will always be a great feeling, and you’ll want to see them again, but it doesn’t really matter if other circumstances get in the way, or if the timing never really works out, or if you eventually lose touch with each other. Regardless of how it all plays out, it was just nice to have met them.

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