Maybe you recall the movie Before Sunrise and its follow-up, Before Sunset, or perhaps you’ve seen L’Auberge Espagnole along with it’s sequel, Russian Dolls. These aren’t new films. The earliest, Before Sunrise, was made in 1995 and the most recent, Russian Dolls, came out in 2005. They’re not deep, heavy-weight films. But they’re interesting movies with remarkably authentic, likeable characters and real conversations — a rarity in movies — and they offer us the special pleasure of seeing fictional people blunder and develop over time. Each of these films was an acclaimed critical success. If you haven’t seen them, you may have four movies to enjoy.
Before Sunrise and Before Sunset focus exclusively on two characters: Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Cèline (French/American actress Julie Delpy.) In Before Sunrise, this pair of twenty-something travelers meet on a train and end up together in Vienna where they spend the night talking, getting to know the city and each other until they part at sunrise. That’s it, they talk and get to know each other and promise to meet again in six months. These are two very engaging and intelligent young people who are open to experience and who hook up the way young people do. That they are interested in each other’s ideas (Not exclusively, of course. This is an imitation of real life.) places this movie above just about every other twenty-something flick.
But Jesse and Cèline don’t get together six months later. The sequel, Before Sunset, was filmed nine years later, and the story takes place after the same lapse of time. Celine attends a book store reading by Jesse, now a successful novelist who is in Paris to promote his book. Jesse has a plane to catch and the couple have only “until sunset” to talk, to catch up on each other’s life. They’re the same talkative, engaging, interested and interesting people they were nine years earlier, but they’ve matured. Or, to put it another way, life has knocked them down a few times. Jesse is unhappily married and has a son he loves; Cèline, an environmental activist, is unsatisfyingly involved with a photojournalist. Happy marriages are not easy to come by, but maybe this thirty-something pair has a future. Or maybe not.
Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are narrow aperture films that focus wholly on two characters. Furthermore, Before Sunset plays out in real time, giving the viewer an even more closely framed cinematic experience. On the other hand, L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls are sprawling stories with a jumbled multitude of characters, and Russian Dolls spreads out geographically, too, taking place in Paris, London, St Petersburg and Moscow.
L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls are French movies with actor Romaine Duris as Xavier, the primary figure. In L’Auberge Espagnole Xavier studies economics in a year-long graduate program in Barcelona where he shares quarters with a group of other students from all over Europe. This is a longish and rather diffuse movie with ten principal characters; indeed, the movie-goer is perhaps more engaged by the emerging vision of a united Western Europe than by the wayward adventures of Xavier. Romaine Duris as Xavier is a likeable if somewhat feckless young man, always on the verge of growing up and always not quite getting there.
These young graduate students get into each other’s beds with the ease of, well, the ease young graduate students studying abroad. But Xavier really needs to keep track of himself better. It’s true that some of Xavier’s waywardness comes not from Xavier, but from the movie’s director, Cédric Klapisch, who tends to run off in too many different directions at once. Despite its flaws, L’Auberge Espagnole is simply likeable, and the viewer comes away with the sense that each person in this heterogeneous group has come to know and have an affectionate regard for all the others.
Russian Dolls gradually focuses on two characters from L’Auberge Espagnole: Xavier, now a writer on the bottom rungs of what might be a ladder to success, and Wendy, that interesting young British woman who had been one of Xavier’s apartment mates in Barcelona. She’s also a writer. Wendy’s brother, who had passed through Barcelona in the earlier film, has reformed himself, has fallen in love with a Russian ballerina he met in London, and is getting married to her in Russia. A group of the old gang from Barcelona is going to St. Petersburg for the wedding. As in the earlier film, there’s a lot going on — too much, some viewers might say — and we follow Xavier through his relationship with an old girlfriend who has now married and divorced and had a child, and his lesbian pal, Isabelle, with whom he lives for a while, his mother, his grandfather, his various writing jobs, and so on. Xavier still beds too many women too easily, and it’s only after a maddeningly stupid adventure with an empty-headed model that he discovers what we’ve known all along, that he’s in love with Wendy.
Russian Dolls is as flawed as L’Auberge Espagnole but it’s decidedly worth seeing. Although the director insists on trying to do too much, the film is consistently interesting, the characters and what they have to say rings true. One of the passing pleasures of this movie is the depiction of living quarters in Paris, London and St. Petersburg, and how differently people live in those different place, despite the substrate of essentially similar humanity. If you haven’t seen these films, you have something to look forward to.