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Ethan Hawke as Jesse Wallace
Julie Delpy as Celine
Nine years after spending a night together in Vienna, Jesse Wallace (Hawke) is reunited with Celine (Julie Delpy) while on a book signing tour in Paris. Still smitten with her, Jesse only has a few hours before he has to get on a plane back to his wife in the States, so they spend that time catching up on old times and finding out what the other one has been doing since they last saw each other.
Have you ever gotten to the end of an old movie and wondered what happened to the characters after the end credits rolled? Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset takes the idea of “where are they now?” to the limit, reuniting the characters from his 1994 romance Before Sunrise for a real-time conversation that spans the course of the film. Although director Denys Arcand already used a similar idea to revisit his characters from an earlier movie in the award-winning The Barbarian Invasions, Linklater takes a more personal approach to this follow-up.
The experience of his night with Celine had such a deep impact on Jesse that he wrote a story about it, and his Paris book signing makes for the perfect opportunity to reunite the former lovers. Unfortunately, Jesse has a flight to catch in a few hours, leaving them little time for them to catch up on the nine years that have passed. They walk through Paris and talk, sit in a coffee shop and talk, walk a bit more, get on a boat and talk some more, and yet the conversation never gets even remotely boring. Those wondering what happened after the last movie won’t be disappointed—and yes, you do find out whether or not they met six months later--but anyone who hasn't seen the original movie will also be able to enjoy it, since Linklater uses Jesse’s book and their conversation to fill in the gaps.
The transformation of the characters from careless youths to responsible adults is what makes the movie so fascinating, and the dynamic of their relationship has changed a lot, even if the chemistry between them is stronger as ever. Both actors have become so comfortable and attached to their characters that their conversation flows naturally with a playful tone that makes it seem as if they’ve known each other for years.
Hawke is still as charming as ever and still quite obviously attracted to Celine, although he is also the more romantic of the two, dwelling on their previous encounter and what might have been. By comparison, Celine has become wiser and more worldly, even somewhat cynical compared to the naïve young lass of the first movie, and she’s much better at fending off his advances now. The growth of her character is a testament to Delpy’s evolution as an actress since the first movie. She also looks better than ever, having grown older a bit more gracefully than Hawke whose gaunt face shows signs of aging without the longer hair of his youth. To put it bluntly, Hawke looks like he’s been put through the Hollywood wringer, while Delpy still seems fresh and vibrant.
This is a very different movie from the overly sentimental Before Sunrise, working on far more levels than simply showing these character years later. It could just as easily be viewed as a conversation between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, two actors who haven’t worked together in almost ten years, and Linklater also doesn’t shy away from the political implications of the way the world has changed—particularly the relations between American and France—since they last saw each other. You have to wonder when he wrote the movie, since some of Hawke’s own recent domestic problems seem to be reflecting on his character in the movie.
For what is essentially a ninety-minute conversation to keep your attention, the script would have to be amazing, and it indeed is. It’s a great credit to the writing talents of Linklater and his two stars, who collaborated on the script, working on it for over a year before shooting. Much of the movie sounds so natural that you assume some of it is improvised, but this is not the case. Besides a bit of talk about politics, they also have some very candid discussions about sex that are as direct as some of those in Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien. If even one of the conversations in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes had half as much depth as the dialogue in Before Sunset, it might have been a much more satisfying experience.
Technically, the film is a masterpiece in that most of the conversations are filmed in one long tracking shot, focusing as much on the beautiful Paris background on the two stars. Being able to have such a lengthy conversation without edits or a change in camera angles makes the performance by these two actors that much more impressive. The only time the film really falters is towards the end when they stop talking.
The Bottom Line:
With Before Sunset, Richard Linklater has made another singularly unique film. Besides being one of the most original takes on a sequel in quite some time, it’s one of the year’s nicest surprises so far. The unquenchable chemistry between Hawke and Delpy and the excellent dialogue makes this something special, whether you liked the original movie or not. Without giving it away, the film’s ending is just as vague as the first one, leaving you wondering what happens next. I guess we’ll know in ten more years, but in the meantime, we can wait patiently for Linklater to get around to making Still Dazed and Confused.