In 1995 writer and director Richard Linklater introduced us to Jesse and Celine, two young twentysomethings who – by one spontaneous act – end up spending one night together roaming the streets of Vienna. The two open themselves up to each other and fall in love. The movie ends with Jesse heading to the airport to catch his flight back to the United States and Celine catching her train to Paris. Both agree to meet back at the same station on a set day five years later but as they go their separate ways they, and we, wonder if they will ever see each other again. That movie was “Before Sunrise”. That’s brings us to 2004 and “Before Sunset”, a sequel directed, produced, and co-written by Linklater that tells us what happened to these two fascinating characters.
Ethan Hawke returns as Jesse and we find him at Shakespeare & Company in Paris doing a signing for his new book. Jesse seems successful. His book has taken off and Paris is the last stop on his European promotional blitz before heading back home in the states to his wife and child. While being interviewed we discover that his new book is based on his romance in Vienna 9 years earlier. We also see in the corner of the bookstore Celine (Julie Delpy). Celine, now living in Paris, had come across the promotion of Jesse’s appearance. After finishing his last interview Jesse sees Celine in the corner and the two meet again. Jesse has a few hours before his flight so they slip out and walk through Paris, catching up, reconnecting, tapping into old feelings, and second guessing their life choices.
“Before Sunset” pretty much follows the same formula as the first film. It’s an extremely talky movie and the two main characters are the centerpiece. We see the awkwardness of them first meeting again and their reflections on their night together and the reunion that was to take place five years afterwards. But it doesn’t take long before we see evidence of the same chemistry that had drawn them so close together before. The conversations flow naturally – at first as if getting to know each other again then later like two soul mates pouring their hearts out – and we never doubt that there is a real connection between these two characters.
In the first film both were young, energetic, and open. But as the movie moved along we found they each had their own worries and insecurities. Jesse took solace in seeing himself as not belonging which in turn gave him a sense of freedom. Nine years later, even with his success as a writer and a wife and child, Jesse still feels as if he doesn’t belong but the byproduct that he once saw as freedom has now become a stranglehold. In the first film Celine was witty, optimistic, and open-minded but yet with her own reservations about things. Nine years later her optimism has turned to pessimism; her open-mindedness has become cynicism and distrust. While she’s still as witty as ever, she has changed the most of the two and it’s clear that she’s wrestling with some overwhelming inner feelings. She’s bitter and forlorn and even a bit neurotic when her emotions get the best of her.
“Before Sunset” isn’t as romantic as “Before Sunrise” but in a very real way it gives the first film a more forceful emotional punch. Their decisions, particularly at the end of the first movie, became life altering choices. Even smaller decisions such as not exchanging phone numbers turned out having monumental effects on the courses of both their lives. This gives the audience several good lessons and points to ponder and Linklater feeds those ideas throughout this film. And while the first film focused on the blossoming of love, this film showed the endurance of love, albeit a now unattainable love. We also see both Jesse and Celine shackled with their own personal and emotional baggage.
There’s a lot to like about this film but like it’s predecessor, the writing is really what makes this movie so special. Linklater once again worked with Kim Krizen to develop the story and Hawke and Delpy both contributed a lot to the screenplay. Like before, you can clearly see the collaborative effort of the four writers in not only creating two fascinating characters but in presenting a large amount of dialogue that we the audience never lose interest in. A lot of that is also due to Hawke and Delpy’s incredible performances. Both are extremely comfortable with the characters and the material and their own influence into the story translates strongly on screen. Also impressive is their ability to handle these long dialogue-soaked takes. There’s an enviable skill in being able to nail a long take. These two performers do it over and over again.
In “Before Sunset” Linklater uses Paris instead of Vienna but uses it in a slightly better way. The beauty of Paris isn’t thrown in our faces. Instead it playfully lingers in the background injecting itself at just the right moments (as only the City of Light could do) giving the movie a more romantic feel. It’s not forceful or overdone. The movie was filmed in just 15 days and the very few locations used around the city were perfectly appropriate for the long tracking shots and framed still shots that Linklater incorporates. Another fun and interesting production note – Delpy also wrote and performed three songs for the film.
This is a movie that might not be for everyone. Those unable to withstand long sequences of just two people talking are going to struggle with this picture. But they’re also going to miss out on a fabulous film. The more I think on it, the more I view it and the first movie as inseparable. “Before Sunrise” clearly made the sequel possible but the sequel gave the first movie a real feeling of consequence. These two didn’t just go their separate ways from Vienna. They changed the courses of their lives forever and not necessarily for the better. It doesn’t have the romance of the first film and it’s ending left a little to be desired. But I still find these characters mesmerizing and easy to invest in. Now bring on the third film!