1995's "Before Sunrise" is just about as perfect and complete as a motion picture can be, a 100-minute conversation between two strangers who meet on a train and gradually fall deeply in love with each other over a single night in Vienna, only to have to part ways in the morning. The dialogue was natural and always fascinating, the characters were meticulously and lovingly developed, and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's fiery chemistry approached an almost ethereal beauty. As the film ended, they vowed to meet in exactly six months at the same train station, kissed and hugged passionately, and physically walked out of each other's lives.
"Before Sunset" is an unlikely sequel in that the original movie was a modest indie that only grossed $5.5 million at the box-office, only to garner a fervent cult following on video. Because of this, the desire to return to these characters was not based on financial reasons, but because Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater (2003's "School of Rock
") held a personal stake in wanting to know what happened to these two characters. The majority of casual moviegoers have probably never seen "Before Sunrise," a shame because what they have missed is one of the most enchantingly romantic films ever made.
Seeing the original and having it fresh in one's mind when they walk into "Before Sunset" is a remarkable asset, only standing to give this continuing chapter more meaning and emotional gravitas. Few cinematic romances could ever hope to equal the faultlessness of "Before Sunrise," and "Before Sunset" is no exception, but that is the latter picture's only debit. This is a spectacularly successful sequel, pure, impassioned and requisitely a little more downbeat. It is also a much-needed alternative to the big, flashy, special effects-laden popcorn movies of the summer, and one of the season's must-see efforts.
Nine years have passed since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) went in their separate directions, Jesse back to America and Celine to Paris, but constant nagging thoughts about each other have plagued them through a series of problematic relationships and life experiences. When Jesse makes his way to a Paris bookstorehis last stop on a tour with his first novel, based on that fateful nighthe is taken aback by the appearance of Celine, who is all too familiar with the source of his writings. Jesse only has an hour before he must leave to catch his plane back to America, and he and Celine decide to take advantage of their chance encounter by catching up with each other. Did either, for example, show up at that train station as they planned six months following their first meeting? As they walk around the city and talk, it becomes exceedingly apparent that Jesse, who is unhappily married and has a son, and Celine, who is in an unstable relationship, still hold irrefutably strong feelings for each other. As the time approaches for them to once again part, the question becomes whether these two, who are clearly destined for each other but have nine years worth of baggage between them (significant others, children, careers, and the whole country difference), could ever realistically be together.
Picking up in the lives of these two vivid, scrupulously defined individuals after nearly a decade turns out to be almost as effortless as breathing. The dialogue, written by director Richard Linklater and his lead actors, is imperative to the success of "Before Sunset"; without it, the film would run the risk of becoming dull very quickly, and without a natural flow, the premise would lose credibility. Fortunately, the writing is of the highest and most realistic order, capturing the ebb and flow and tics and gestures of two people holding an actual conversation. While Jesse and Celine had roughly twelve hours to spend together in the first film, this time they only have one, and so there is little time for frivolity. As two people with an undeniable bond would do had they not seen each other for nine years, Jesse and Celine have real questions to ask the other, and hold a genuine care in their answers.
The talk, if one clearly remembers "Before Sunrise," additionally holds deeper meaning here, unveiling how both characters have changed over the years, whether they would like to admit it or not. Celine, especially, has unknowingly been stripped of much of her bright idealism and outlook for the future. As they discuss this very topic, and Jesse asks Celine soon after if she believes in reincarnation (a question he also asked her in the first movie), the marked difference in her answer makes for one of the most heartbreaking cinematic moments of the year. And as for Jesse, the viewer mourns how he has essentially turned into his own father, staying in a loveless marriage solely for the benefit of his child.
Ethan Hawke (2004's "Taking Lives
") and Julie Delpy (2001's "Waking Life
") fall effortlessly back into their roles of Jesse and Celine as if they never stopped playing these parts. They are one of the great romantic pair-ups in modern film, and with even the most subtle of actions and body language create remarkable depth of character and emotional power. When Celine sings a song to Jesse that she wrote, and afterward denies having written it about him, the way in which she responds is all the proof the viewer needs that she isn't being honest. Hawke and Delpy deserve major end-of-the-year awards accolades for what is an extension of both's most unblemished performances, to date.
The final scene of "Before Sunset," which manages to be even more open-ended than its predecessor's finale, is a tricky balancing act of music, acting, and motion that speaks far louder than any words ever could. As lovely as the final image is before the fade-out, however, it comes as a somewhat abrupt respite to the more deliberate and lyrical ending of the original. If "Before Sunrise" was a formative masterpiece, then "Before Sunset" is a lesser, but just as exquisitely gratifying, gem. All of the studio-produced, mass-marketed romances out there, take note: this is precisely what a love story should be.