In Before Sunset (2004), the second instalment of Richard Linklater’s walking-and-talking trilogy, we encounter Jesse (Ethan Hawke) at Shakespeare and Company, the world’s most famous bookstore. Nine years since he first met Celine (Julie Delpy) on the Eurorail, our slightly more weathered protagonist is on the final leg of his book tour, promoting an autobiographical novel about the one night he spent walking around Vienna with a pretty, neurotic French girl. In a grand romantic gesture, they promised to meet each other at the same train station exactly a year later, without ever exchanging details. She didn’t show.
A journalist asks Jesse a wind-up question about upcoming projects. “I always wanted to write a book that all took place in the space of a pop song,” Jesse tells him. The scene: a middle-aged man who should want for nothing but is unsatisfied with his lot is watching his daughter dance to whatever’s playing on the radio. In a flash he’s sixteen again, seeing his childhood sweetheart dancing to the same pop song on the bonnet of a car. “All his life is folding in on itself,” Jesse explains, “and it’s obvious to him that time is a lie. That it’s all happening, all the time, and inside every moment is another moment all, you know, happening simultaneously.” And as if his speech had conjured her, Celine appears from behind a crammed bookshelf.
It’s fitting that Jesse expounds this idea while visiting France, for the pop song is an aural equivalent of Proust’s infamous madeleine, the sweet whose taste transports the narrator of Swann’s Way (1913) back to his lost childhood at Combray. This eternal present isn’t the Nietzschean stoner nihilism evoked by True Detective’s Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) when he declares that “time is a flat circle” in which us mortals are doomed to endless, meaningless repetition. Instead, for Jesse, it’s a salve to the wounded male ego; the pop song, like the madeleine, makes him immune to “the vicissitudes of life… its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory.”
Before Sunset’s bookshop scene is intercut with footage from Linklater’s previous film Before Sunrise (1995), with reality and memory playing out as contrapuntal melodies. One imagines that for Jesse, who has found himself trapped in a loveless marriage, Kath Bloom’s ‘Come Here’ (which features heavily in the first film) is just this pop song: There’s wind that blows in from the north / And it says that loving takes this course. Jesse is languishing in a state of obsessive nostalgia where a song is a sensory shortcut to the lost love object—Celine and the life of romance and adventure that she represents. And for the audience, their own nostalgia for Celine and Jesse’s mythic amour is also fulfilled.
Linklater himself has often used pop music as a temporal portal. The seed of Dazed and Confused (1993), his iconic teen film that takes place on the last day of high school in 1976, came from hearing ZZ Top’s album Fandango (1975) and being transported to a night where he and his buddies drove around aimlessly listening to it on repeat. “At the end of the evening we had driven almost 150 miles and of course, had gotten nowhere,” Linklater recalled. While this kind of musical throwback is ripe for the brand of wistfulness characterised by George Lucas’s American Graffiti. (1973)—a film that postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson singled out as the “inaugural” nostalgia film, “the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past” where doo-wop, fetishised Buicks, and crinolines obscure a repressive fifties ideology—Linklater’s vision of the seventies certainly wasn’t all ‘flower power’ and bell-bottoms.
Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a Melbourne-based writer and critic. She is the film editor at The Big Issue and a PhD candidate.