Most appealing about the Before … films is that their romance is consuming without being in your face about it. In them, we are witnesses to the relationship between the greatest cinematic couple of the 1990s, American writer Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French environmentalist Céline (Julie Delpy), but we aren’t moved by their love because they can’t keep their hands off each other, because their physically induced passion is sexier than anything us average folks could muster. We are, instead, moved by watching them speak to each other, divulging their laments on life, love, their fears, their pleasures. Affection hovers in their eyes, but their romance is as cerebral as it is physically magnetic. We could listen to them converse for days, their musings wise yet sweeping when in the presence of the other.
Before Sunset is an improvement on its predecessor, the wonderful Before Sunrise (1995), the characters being older and less optimistic than they once were, the content establishing itself as more involving, and with a screenplay written by the leading actors themselves and thereby strengthening the likable realism of the film. More is at stake, a sense of yearning for fulfillment being much more urgent. The fleeting nature of Before Sunrise is nowhere to be found, a special, temporary night replaced by a now-or-never afternoon in which self-reflection is integral. And we like Jesse and Céline more now, fond of how they’ve matured in the crossroads of being thirty-somethings.
Because much has changed in the nine years since they saw each other last: Jesse is unhappily married and has a young son, and Céline has dedicated her professional life to a sizable amount of activism. Them coming across each other by too-good-to-be-true chance perhaps isn’t so strange: Jesse has become a hugely successful author in the last decade or so, his latest best-seller being a semi-autobiographical tale about his fateful night with Céline. He’s on a press tour, his last stop Paris. Céline catches him just as he’s leaving what she bills her “favorite bookstore.” And so begins eighty minutes of chatter, both small and big, both witty and confessional.
Those familiar with Before Sunrise might recall an ending which promised that the central twosome would meet again in Vienna after six months, exchanging no contact information solely because trust seemed like enough. But in Before Sunset, it is revealed that, while Jesse came as promised, Céline did not, due to familial tragedy. This change of fate acts as the center of the film. What would have happened had the couple met again half-a-year later? they (and we) ask themselves (and ourselves) over and over again. And so the movie is a second chance, and a lyrical one at that.
We are embroiled in this relationship, and, differing from most film characters, we love Jesse and Céline. We want them to be together in a way never felt in most romantic films, as we feel like we know them, have spent time with them, unlike most where a few cute incidents and dramatic make-out sessions are enough to enforce true love. Jesse and Céline are the rare exception. Their affection seems genuine; it’s like watching people watch in love, and we take for granted what an enthralling experience that can be in the movies.
Most impressive is the repartee between Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater, who work together so fluidly that completing the sentence of the other wouldn’t be out of the question. Hawke and Delpy have effervescent electricity running in-between them, and their dialogue, co-written with Linklater, suggests improvisation when the truth is totally otherwise. What they do here is enormously difficult — how can a sequel be a cohesive continuation, and how can a film whose success is solely based on conversation act as a feature? — but it all looks effortless.
Where Before Sunrise was a poignant exercise, Before Sunset draws on what made it great. It’s one of the best in the genre, without all that Hugh and Julia bullshit that I sometimes like. A