The visual coda to Richard Linklater’s acclaimed 1995 film Before Sunrise was a brief series of shots recollecting the various corners and streets of Vienna in which its two young characters had just spent a glorious night together. A quiet bench, a ferris wheel, a bridge, a pitch of grass in a park become lovers’ landmarks, but melancholy pervades, as these places are shown to be vacant. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are then traveling apart (she to Paris and he back to America) after their brief encounter, and the emptiness of those shots amplifies the emotional burn of the closing minutes.
Nine years later, Linklater revisits the characters, passion, and ideas of that momentous night in a sequel, Before Sunset. To fans and skeptics, the title may have been misleadingly awkward or facile at first, but Linklater is no patsy for marketing suits. Dubious as any sequel to a meaningful film might be, doubts fade within the first minutes of the new release. Mirroring filmically the closing moments of the original, Before Sunset opens with series of shots canvassing tranquil morning locales in Paris. A quiet street, another quiet street, a cafe are established as places of “potential,” and as the film unfolds (mostly in real-time) Celine and Jesse’s reunion takes them to these locations. While the first film ended with the immediate past, the companion begins with the immediate future.
Jesse has written a successful novel based on the events of Before Sunrise, and Celine comes to his reading at a small bookshop in Paris. They share an hour transfixed by the sudden presences of each other before Jesse leaves on a plane for New York. Nine years of adulthood have taxed them in their seperate lives. Ideals have proved to be burdons, disappointing routines have uprisen, and love has been fleeting and rare. Although each tries to conceal it, a truth about their one night in Vienna escapes: it was the one moment in their lives of true connection, of real love. And nothing has touched the same extreme since.
For anyone who saw Sunrise prior to Sunset, the simple sight of Hawke and Delpy together is transcendent. Both have incurred baggage, wrinkles, defeat, but each remains beautifully alive and quick. More confident, more experienced, but no less fragile, their chemistry defies the logic of acting â€” defies those who scoff at the admittedly pathetic parade of hopeful but soulless rom-coms released each year. Hawke and Delpy co-wrote the script with Linklater, but a testament to their skills as actors is that it seems more like Jesse and Celine deserve credit. Hawke suffers far too many bad reviews; he is a master at this kind of naturalistic, conversational acting. The weight of intelligence behind each incredibly accurate exchange of lines is reflected in the expressions and timing he conjurs of an actual, self-conscious man trying his best to articulate the heavy thoughts occuring to him. Add in the weight of time â€” nine years â€” and the rendezvous is overwhelmingly convincing.
Small-talk transitions carefully into trusting familiarity, and as the time for Hawke’s character to leave grows near, Delpy delivers a moment of moving vulnerability. They both open the truths about themselves unabashedly, absurdly sustained by the understanding of what should be the talk of two strangers. If the film sounds schmaltzy, worry not ye cynics. There are heaps of harsh reality to balance. Their realist script deftly allows for the presence of both, and it is both engrossing and affecting to observe two not-as-young lovers grapple with the ambiguities, the fleeting possibilities, of the life right in front of them. That the teetering, smoldering emotions are never allowed anywhere near melodramatic temperatures renders the film’s brilliant, Carve-esque ending all the more rewarding. The viewer, gripped, finds his heated mind flip-flopping feverishly “Don’t get on the plane! No, just go…wait, yes stay!” while Hawke, cool on the surface, willingly lets Delpy delay his concerns and allay his regrets. Title included, Before Sunrise should be chiseled in as one of the few succussful sequels in cinema history, (demonstrating that one does not need a clever title if the movie is real).