Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)

“Before Sunrise” was an incredible exercise in on-screen chemistry and depiction of youthful romanticism as Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, two twentysomethings traveling across Europe, meet on a train, decide on a whim to explore Vienna between trains, and personify all that is good about mutual attraction and falling in love without a care about the next day. Now, nine years later in this sequel, Jesse is in Paris promoting his novel about that fateful night, happens to glance to his right while answering questions during a book signing, and there sees his lost love. After tongue-tyingly cutting his Q&A short, he walks over and says hello, she says hello back, and off they go, continuing the odyssey they hurriedly cut short with an unfulfilled promise to meet in Vienna in December on that train platform nine years earlier. Jesse’s complete lack of surprise upon greeting Celine is striking and telling, as indeed later on he’ll admit that he thinks he wrote his book partly to draw her back to him. This is their reunion in Vienna in December after all.

“Before Sunset” essentially shares the same format as its predecessor, as Celine and Jesse traverse the city discussing topics far and wide, profound and petty, with some differences. “Before Sunrise” sprawled over the course of a night, while this sequel occurs essentially in real-time. Ironically, I sensed more time-based desperation between the two in the first film, as an impending sense of doom, as the sun would act as harbinger to their inevitable separation, contributed to their headlong passage into love as much as their sheer chemistry did. Here, they’re nine years older, more jaded, and at least at the outset have no illusions about rekindling that spark, as they’re looking back at that night with fascinated amusement as much as anything. That they do rekindle that spark once again should hardly come as a surprise, an outcome that is delightfully inevitable, yet that sense of idealized reverie I felt after the first film was lacking here. I’m struggling to remember a large majority of what Celine and Jesse discuss in both films – a flaw in the second film, a virtue in the first. In their first meeting, their inherent chemistry and body language speak leaps and bounds over what they happen to be speaking with their mouths, never more apparent than during my favorite scene in the first film, as they share a listening booth in a record store, listening to a record while both incessantly sneak glances at one another, never daring to meet each others’ gaze. Does Jesse want to kiss Celine, does she want him to? Their attraction is depicted flawlessly in those eyes, and that attraction carries them towards sunrise and an unknown tomorrow. I thought “Before Sunset” relied more heavily on dialogue, but damned if I could give a damn about the random crap they’re talking about. Yeah, it’s natural and organic, moreso than the endless dreck of most romance movies in this day and age, and maybe I’m unfairly looking for that once-present youthful spark in these two that’s, like their youth itself, simply no longer there, but for the first time while watching these two incredibly-written characters, I grew bored, and that cannot be discounted.

If nothing else, this film is an incredible technical achievement by Linklater, for his minutes-long single tracking shots, and by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for never missing a beat during said shots, walking and talking as fictional characters in a very real city, the difficulty of which I cannot imagine. Ultimately, I was often admiring those technical accomplishments of a film director and actors more than the story – I was admiring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke rather than Celine and Jesse, and that lack of immersion that the first film practically bathed in left me wanting. But, maybe I as a 27-year-old who would like very much to meet and fall for a beautiful french woman on a train to Vienna am just yet to experience the perspective of these two now-older people, revisiting, and perhaps re-becoming, those different people they once were. After all, we don’t even learn into well into the film that **SPOILER** Celine is seeing a war photographer and Jesse is in an unhappy marriage and has a son he idolizes **END SPOILER**. I was startled by these revelations, but to Celine and Jesse, and to the screenplay, it’s just another topic amongst the many covered by these two. If I can’t identify with such momentous life changes, I can at least hope to examine them with the delicate grace that these two do. I can’t wait to be as unprepared for Before Midnight as I was for this.

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