2004Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
here's something uniquely life-affirming about the resounding success of Before Sunset, the most intelligent romantic film in quiet some time. After all, it's an unlikely sequel to 1995's deliriously, swooningly perceptive Before Sunrise, a compact, self-contained brief encounter that asked for no further elaboration.
That film introduced Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy)—he a Gen-X double-espresso American philosopher, she a beautiful, opinionated French bohemian—as they meet-cute on a Eurail train to Vienna and spend the entire evening making out, debunking dogma, riding Ferris wheels, and romanticizing the future in that way that only twentysomethings can…before parting ways the next morning. Refreshingly unsentimental, and lacking the trite I-love-you's that even the craftiest romantic films fall prey to, Before Sunrise further affirmed writer/director Richard Linklater as the American independent auteur who best understood the art of conversation.
Linklater's films, dialogue-driven short stories from the heart of Texas, are brilliantly of-the-moment. Slacker, Dazed and Confused, subUrbia, Waking Life, Tape—they all unfold over the course of a 24-hour period. For Linklater, today is always the day.
Instead of exchanging phone numbers and addresses, the lovebirds decided—at the sunrise of Before Sunrise—to eschew watered-down communication and simply meet back in Vienna in six months. Part of that film's magic was its test of the audience's faith; those who saw the couple reuniting in six months were romantics, and those who didn't were cynics.
Linklater, always eager to please, provides two follow-up scenarios. The romantics can cherish that scene in Waking Life where Jesse and Celine wake up together in an Austin apartment to continue their unceasing exegesis of modern romance. The cynics, however, have Before Sunset, a proper sequel which leads to another romantic/cynic faith test.
So they didn't meet up. One or both didn't show up…suffice it to say that their alibis are excusable. Nine years after sunrise, the stage is set for another enlightening encounter. Jesse is in Paris to promote his new book—Hawke plays the bad-author shtick with self-deprecating aplomb—which is the story of his fateful one-night stand with Celine. Celine, now an environmental activist and amateur songwriter, shows up at the bookstore where Jesse is meeting the press, and they spend the next few hours reflecting, regretting, and romancing until, inevitably, Jesse has to fly back to New York.
I won't spoil anything beyond this initial setup, because the rewards of Before Sunset are rooted in Jesse and Celine's diversions from their initial idealistic fantasies. They are older, more skeptical and perhaps wiser, and so is the film. Before Sunset runs a streamlined 80 minutes, and the dialogue, mature and consistently invigorating, is devoid of filler.
Jesse and Celine's race against time is far more thrilling than any recent action flick—there's so much more at stake. Like its predecessor, Before Sunset is sexy in its restraint; this is a relationship that, given the circumstances, cannot manifest itself. And yet, it's perfectly clear that the two are meant for each other.
Like the equally sublime but marginally less substantial Lost in Translation, Linklater's film is perfectly clear about the imperfections of romantic connection. Are we meant to throw it all away—spouse, children, ideals, religion, livelihood, taste—when we meet the love of our life? On this question Jesse and Celine remain ambivalent, and Before Sunset ends without resolution, possibly paving the way for one final chapter…
Life is too short to dismiss hyperbole: this is one of the most heart-wrenching, deeply felt films I've ever seen. As sequels go, Before Sunset should serve as the prototype.
By: Akiva Gottlieb
Published on: 2004-04-12