The End of the Affair
Kristi Mitsuda on Before Sunset

When first presented with this summer’s symposium topic, my mind immediately seized upon the last shot in Before Sunset; it was as if I’d been subconsciously waiting for someone to set just such a task before me so I could finally be forced to explore the mysteriously obsessive grip that perfect concluding image continues to hold on me nearly two years later. I hesitated, intimidated by the prospect of analyzing so simple a shot, no matter how sublime. But I also hedged because sometimes when madly in love with a movie, rather than allow myself to get embarrassingly gushy, I like to leave it alone—as if looking too closely might exorcise some of that alchemical magic; I prefer that the haunting continue. Yet even as I write the above, I know it’s not quite true; overcoming that fear of tainting the purity of a filmic experience with words often encourages an even deeper and happier embedding. Though Reverse Shot’s shared enrapturement with Sunset has seemingly been done to death, alas, not for me.

Endings can make or break a film, and the final single frame in particular possesses a weightiness because of its capacity for crystallization of all that’s come before. So what exactly is it about that last shot in Before Sunset that thrills so many with its loveliness that it elicits physical responses ranging from gasps to jaw drops to tears (check, check, check)? Why is that unexpected fade out on an unassuming static medium-shot of Julie Delpy’s Cèline doing her gracefully unself-conscious Nina Simone dance—following a shot/reverse-shot of her crooning, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane” to Jesse’s utterly enchanted reply of “I know” —possibly the most resonant conclusion (and I’m not one for superlatives) to any film I’ve seen?

I remember, prior to a first viewing, wondering and worrying how Linklater might satisfactorily stick that landing given the build-up of nine long years and a devoted cult clamoring for some form of appeasement, a difficult thing to balance against the naturalism upon which the project predicates itself, and demands. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one aghast at a fact revealed by longtime Linklater cinematographer Lee Daniel at a Q&A following a back-to-back showing with Before Sunrise at Reverse Shot’s inaugural “Presents” screening series: apparently, the director was unsure how to end Sunset and, at one point, considered panning past Cèline to her window containing a view of the Paris skyline. A consciousness of this alternative ending brings the breaking with convention of Sunset’s coup de grace into better context. After all, is there any more clichéd final image than that absorption of the individual into the cityscape or horizon, any visual punctuation mark that would’ve felt more like the shoehorning of a singularly original cinematic enterprise into a generic mold?

The overused maneuver always suggests (or at least it used to; now it’s mostly become the lazy shorthand for an uncreative filmmaker to signify “the end”) that whatever situation depicted stands in for a wider social experience, as in Billy Wilder’s study of an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend or, more recently, Michael Winterbottom’s modern city symphony of loneliness, Wonderland. But Cèline and Jesse (as played so feelingly by Delpy and Ethan Hawke) accrue, over the course of the two films, a beautiful specificity. The universality of the extrapolation that phantom final shot suggests would’ve betrayed a situation as unique and hermetic as theirs (no matter how based in reality). At the same time, it’s the characters’ distinctiveness that fosters profound personal applications—you can imagine knowing these people, or having occupied the shifting positions of one or the other at various stages in your own development. That Sunset’s clincher remains close and personal preserves an authentic intimacy which epitomizes the entirety more truly than a grander gesture. It also encapsulates the overarching vision of a filmmaker who prizes the rambling, grounding details over broad-based assertions or plot payoffs.

Neither Linklater’s dramatic nor comedic moments rely on contrivance but on his harnessing of the energy which animates the eloquent exchanges of everyday life. His talk-heavy movies always struck me as the perfect cinematic accompaniment to the rise of the Nineties’ “coffeehouse culture.” Breaking through with Slacker and then immediately backing it up with Dazed and Confused, Linklater always has been able to approximate the variously hazy or enlightening musings of interesting, ordinary people having a great discussion with friends at a non-Starbucks. Even his most recent work, the quietly brilliant and ostensible sci-fi A Scanner Darkly, consists mostly of conversation; adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel, it may be his most story-oriented to date, but it remains a film loosely structured around the lulls and lucidities that come from simply hanging out. A characteristic trailing-off quality, as of a continuous happening, informs the internal logic of Linklater’s cinema so that the digressions and tangents themselves become the substance.

This sense of a perpetual in medias res plays into the unfolding of Sunset. Though many movies are content to begin in the middle of an occurrence, to end on a note of quiet interruption is a radical move (the only other director to do so that comes to mind is clear Linklater successor, Andrew Bujalski, whose abrupt concluding cutaways daze in a manner similar to Before Sunset’s). To be sure, cinema of the art-house persuasion often ends ambiguously and many tend to do so in nearly as prescribed a fashion as a Hollywood genre flick. A final symbolic tableau, portending hope, doom, or an in-betweeness, offers something solid and graspable, a vague encapsulation—exactly what the slippery ephemerality of Linklater’s finale doesn’t do. So, for instance, in Under the Sand, Charlotte Rampling runs across the beach after an apparition of her missing husband, and the way it’s lensed—in long shot, her figure moving away from the camera and visually making no progress—suggests the forever futility of her searches; a betrayed and tear-stained Giulietta Masina walks alone down a street in Nights of Cabiria until a band of merry revelers coax a resilient smile from her—one she beams directly into the camera—and we know not to worry about her; The Godfather’s famous final shot visualizes Kay being shut out of her newly elevated husband’s business dealings, and life.

Before Sunset doesn’t come to stillness in the same way; its fade-to-black on a random action implies a continuation, an intriguing ongoing aspect. In this way, it delivers to its audience exactly what it needs—an openness that stays true to the soul of the film—and yet the opposite of what it craves, which is for the two to, well, ride off into the sunset together; this tension imbues the final shot with an aching duality. As we watch Cèline shimmying away from Jesse’s point-of-view in those last few seconds, the tenderness he feels for her infuses our perspective as well, and it’s a look so full of love it stops you short: Has ever the simplicity of a reverse shot been so splendidly suffused with yearning?