The Before Trilogy: Time Regained

The Before Trilogy: Time Regained by Dennis Lim (for the Criterion Collection)

The Before movies are often called “talky,” with good reason, but that tag gives short shrift to the sheer delicacy and precision of the actors’ body language, the degree to which these films are rooted in a subtle interplay of minute gestures and split-second glances. One sweetly telling moment happens aboard a tramcar early in Sunrise when Jesse impulsively reaches out, as if to brush a lock of Celine’s hair from her face, but just as quickly loses his nerve and withdraws his hand. And not a single word is exchanged in perhaps the film’s most heart-stopping sequence: squeezed into a record-store listening booth while a folk song by Kath Bloom plays, Celine and Jesse steal glances at each other, avoiding direct eye contact, smiling to themselves, fully aware the other is looking. The critic Robin Wood once proclaimed the scene resistant to analysis, calling it “the cinema’s most perfect depiction . . . at once concrete and intangible, of two people beginning to realize that they are falling in love.”

These two scenes were of some of the more “affective” moments I had with Before Sunset and Sunrise. The visual parts are lessened in Midnight, left to compositional prowess over the actions of the characters themselves.

This obsession with structure seems to arise out of a desire to say not simply all there is to say on a given subject, but to say too much. Just as the poet maudit, or cursed poet, goes too far in his rhetoric, so does the French social scientist. It is as if many of them are torn, like Barthes, by the desire to be a poet, to make rhetorical structures.

Like fashion, of which it is certainly an example, semiology, too, might be characterized as a novel in which nothing happens. It also resembles a kind of machine for maintaining meaning without ever fixing it. Like the subject of this book, Mr. Barthes is so rapt in his analysis, that we can hardly recognize him. It is as if “The Fashion System” was an immense and melancholy pun on his situation as a writer at that time.

But China’s film industry isn’t run by the talent; it’s run by the Chinese Communist Party, which has grown increasingly assertive and paranoid since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Xi is waging a soft-power campaign that requires artists, filmmakers, writers, academics and the media to “serve socialism” and show “positive energy” by offering uplifting messages about the party.

All of these international partnerships signal a move away from Chinese elements awkwardly shoehorned into American films and toward movies that feel more organically pitched toward that culture. The biggest hit in China this year, by far, was a Chinese-language film called The Mermaid, from Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer). “The Chinese love their culture, and they love to see it on-screen,” Bill Borden, an L.A.-based consulting producer on The Mermaid told The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s why Stephen is so popular: he has a million little jokes and funny nuances in his movies that you just won’t get if you’re not Chinese. To continue to work in China in a big way, you’re going to have to be culturally sensitive.” Guess a well-placed cell phone or pandering cameo just isn’t the same.