The all-in-one-night love story that unfolded in Before Sunrise really turned out to be an affair to remember. In that 1995 Linklater movie -- his third, following Slacker and Dazed and Confused -- two strangers on a train meet, talk, disembark to spend the night together in Vienna, talk, walk, talk some more, and then the next day continue on their separate ways, while promising to rendezvous at a certain spot in exactly six months. Last names and phone numbers were never shared; the twentysomething Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) preferred trusting in promises and fate to determine the future.
Linklater's new film, Before Sunset, revisits these two characters, nine years later and now somewhere in their mid-30s. The pair never convened for their six-month reunion and have learned from that nonevent and other life experiences that fate is fickle and unfulfilled promises are a dime a dozen. Yet the spark still lingers, and it's stronger than the mere memory of one perfect night spent nine years ago. It exists in the present when Jesse gives a reading of his debut novel (based on the story of their Vienna night together) in a Parisian bookstore and Celine attends. Paris is the last stop on his book tour, and Jesse is scheduled to leave for his flight back to the States in an hour.
What can they do with that small amount of time? Why, walk and talk, of course. If this sounds like a formula for static, navel-gazing cinema, and the critical comparisons between Before Sunset and the heavily conversational films of Eric Rohmer and My Dinner With Andre have furthermore left you unconvinced of Sunset's entertainment possibilities, then I (and the rest of the critical mob) have failed to describe this film accurately. Before Sunset is a fluid, engaging, charming, frustrating, funny and lively movie. The characters have seasoned over the years, their outlooks are not as carefree as they were in their youth, and their responsibilities in life have multiplied and grown roots.
The filmmakers, too, have grown along with the characters. Delpy and Hawke wrote the Before Sunset screenplay with Linklater based on characters Linklater created with his Before Sunrise co-screenwriter Kim Krizan. Although the characters and their back stories are carefully thought out, Delpy and Hawke deliver their dialogue as if spontaneous and unmeditated. Each one has grown warier than before, but there is still something utterly romantic and seemingly predestined about these two, even though that knowledge is also tinged with a certain sadness because their destiny has been unfulfilled.
Time is neither the enemy nor a friend, it is instead the X-factor in their lives, the stream through which they travel. Linklater teases, tricks, and revels in time's resoluteness and its contours as he films Celine and Jesse with long, absorbing camera takes that provide the illusion of events happening in real time while always keeping us cognizant of its passing. It would take another essay to document Linklater's striking use of time in virtually all of his work: Suffice it to say that the Before Sunrise/Sunset characters offer Linklater enough material to consider a 42 Up sort of series that revisits its subjects every so often.
Who these characters (and the filmmakers behind them) become as they near middle age and beyond could provide rich material for numerous films in a Before Alzheimer's series. (But the same might be said for Linklater's other films, too. Wouldn't we like to see what those kids -- especially the piano player -- from School of Rock are up to 10 years from now?)
Before Sunset may be the world's least-anticipated sequel. In interviews, Linklater has joked that Before Sunrise is the least-successful film ever to spawn a sequel. But conceding to conventional logic has rarely been Linklater's path. If so, would he have released this new movie against the box-office behemoth Spider-Man 2? Perhaps it takes the nerves of someone who has already experienced opening his first released film, Slacker in 1991, against the powerhouse that was Terminator 2. If nothing else, Before Sunset reminds us that there indeed can be a point to making a sequel and provides the following lesson: Next time, get the phone number in writing.
- Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) wonder what might have been in Richard Linklater's Before Sunset.