Upon completing “Before Sunrise” in 1995, the movie’s director Richard Linklater and its actors, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, fell to task on a follow-up. After all, the conclusion of that movie—when the fevered lovers, Jesse and Celine, promise to meet again after six months—begged for it. The result, “Before Sunset,” flashes us forward nine years.
Jesse is now a successful author touring Europe to promote his latest book. But he’s never gotten over Celine, with whom he never re-connected. And, in the manner of all broken-hearted writers, he’s spilled his guts in a novel based on their one-night encounter. At his Paris stopover, Celine, who lives in the city and works for an activist organization, seeks him out at his book signing. The two are understandably thrilled to see each other, and, however flushed and flustered, eager to catch up. But Jesse has precious little time—only 80 minutes, in fact—before he must rush off to the airport en route to his none-too-happy life back in New York.
This real-time compression is a shrewd device because it gives the movie its emotional urgency and, as the minutes lapse, we feel the characters closing in on the brink of their mutual fate. Dramatically, “Before Sunset” works on us like slowly tightening spirals. It begins with wide, slow spirals as the lovers banter over the general state of things, over topics as disparate as religion, gun violence and the environment. But what Jesse and Celine mean by this innocuous back-and-forth is to glean the state of each other’s souls, how their once-youthful chemistry might be affected by nine years’ worth of aging and experience. As their moments tick away, the spirals tighten as the two press each other on more immediate matters—relationships and marriage, especially– while trying to come to grips with a long-ago night in Vienna that haunts them both.
Where “Before Sunset” falters at all is when it overloads itself with words. The dialogue can get overwrought and prosaic—an unfortunate Linklater trademark—and the scenes feel like hurried line readings, like a pressurized can of energy that the actors have shaken a bit too excitedly. But, as the movie’s closing passages prove, you can reveal so much more with almost no dialogue at all; with the merest glance, a song and a dance, worlds of yearning can pour forth.
Linklater has time and again demonstrated his gift for opening up space, for allowing his story-worlds to breathe and become an organic part of the action. Like much of his earlier work, “Before Sunset” takes place mostly outdoors and unfolds predominantly in long takes and with a moving camera. Cinematographer Lee Daniel takes up the challenge gracefully; as Jesse and Celine stroll through a Parisian evening, Daniel creates a lovely canvas of ever-shifting light and shade. Of course, he and Linklater are aided immeasurably by Paris itself. With its old-world waterways, cobbled streets and cafes, the city exudes the values of freedom, romance, and a love of the past—everything that Jesse and Celine pine for and struggle to articulate in the course of the movie.
“Before Sunset” slows to a delicate, heart-rending conclusion in Celine’s apartment, one fully earned by this trio of devoted filmmakers. Jesse’s moment of departure is also his moment of reckoning, for he must answer for himself a question he nudged aside at the movie’s beginning—of whether he’s a romantic or a cynic, and, for that matter, what is it he truly values in life. These are questions that this charming, intelligent romance also encourages us to ask of ourselves.
Written by: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy