Summer sequelitis is upon us, but the season is unlikely to bring anything more remarkable than Richard Linklater’s sweet, smart, and deeply romantic Before Sunset. A modest movie and near impossible feat, Linklater’s latest reunites Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), the endearingly prolix protagonists of his 1995 Before Sunrise, nine years later in Celine’s hometown, Paris.
Illustrating the infinite possibility of its title, Before Sunrise chronicled the chance meeting and 12-hour adventure of these soul mates—Jesse the sensitive, callow American slacker and Celine the venturesome, pretentious French student—to conclude with the open-ended likelihood that they would never meet again. Before Sunset revisits this particular alternate universe, and with stars Hawke and Delpy working on the script, it’s boldly self-reflexive. The movie opens with Jesse, no longer goateed and now a successful author, winding up his European book tour with a reading at the Left Bank institution Shakespeare & Co. from his version of Before Sunrise. He’s scheduled to fly home to the U.S. in a few hours when Celine materializes—their first meeting since they promised (and failed) to keep a rendezvous six months after their brief encounter.
They talk, of course. But the extraordinary thing is not just the quality of their conversation but the way Linklater stages it—a series of long, flashback-punctuated tracking shots in which the camera simultaneously draws the couple through the streets of Paris and back into their respective pasts. Initial ickiness is swept away by the distinctive narrative rhythms. Hyper-conscious of the fleeting time, Celine and Jesse rapidly walk and talk, literally catching up with each other, then sit for a dozen minutes at a café to re-establish the respective fictions of their lives and annotate their earlier meeting. Back on foot, in a dappled bower under light so natural it can’t be ignored, they reveal more about their personal entanglements.
Linklater’s characters are the most loquacious in American cinema—nearly a match for those of Eric Rohmer. But the raps in Before Sunset go beyond the monologues that characterize Slacker or Waking Life (or even School of Rock). Celine and Jesse are alone together; as in Before Sunrise, they tumble for each other in a tumble of words. Their dialogue—on the nature of coincidence and memory, getting older and being in the moment, intimations of mortality and the possibility of personal change—is both the subject of the movie and a commentary on it. For now, these stars personify the passage of time. (So does the movie, which takes 80 minutes to tell an 80-minute story in which the clock is always running.)
None of this would work without the uncanny naturalism of the rapport the actors re-create from the earlier film. Neither Delpy nor Hawke had ever been more appealing than in Before Sunrise. His ardency brought out an unexpected warmth in her, while her intelligence inspired a genuine wit in him. They made a great team—the Astaire-Rogers of undergraduate philosophizing—and it’s understandable why Linklater gave their digitalized forms a scene in Waking Life. Even more than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the year’s other first-rate American feature, Before Sunset dramatizes the effect of love—and no less than that other paradigm of the new romanticism, Lost in Translation, Before Sunset acknowledges love’s evanescence. Brilliantly, Linklater stages the regret scene on one of the tourist boats that work the Seine—there’s no reversing the river’s flow.
Before Sunset provides two dramas. The first involves Celine and Jesse and, full of surprises that make perfect sense in retrospect, is best appreciated with a spotless mind. The second drama is Linklater’s personal tightrope act. Can the filmmaker balance his two stars, their unresolved situation, and his own stringent aesthetic without slipping into sentimentality? I’d say he carries it off—even if this extraordinarily likable movie is two minutes too long to fulfill the melancholy perfection of its title. In every other way, however, Before Sunset is all one could wish for in a sequel—it enriches, glosses, and completes the original.
Related: From Dawn Till Dusk
Nine years later, the director and stars of ‘Before Sunrise’ reunite for a stunning real-time sequel
by Dennis Lim