Before Sunset (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Forget Spider-Man's tussle with Doc Ock. Forget Shrek's trek to Far Far Away. And forget Harry Potter's latest attempt to endure the snipes of Snape. For me, the sequel to see during the summer of 2004 is Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, a follow-up to 1994's sublime Before Sunrise. This is one of those exceedingly rare instances in which the motivation for a sequel is creative, not financial. Before Sunrise was not a big money-maker; the existence of a second chapter defies current movie-making logic, and for that I couldn't be happier.

The litmus test for whether a viewer is likely to appreciate Before Sunset is simple: anyone who enjoyed Before Sunrise will react favorably to the new movie. Those who thought the 1994 film was dull, too talky, or too pretentious will find similar faults with Before Sunset. And, although this film can theoretically stand on its own, the experience is greatly enhanced by watching it only after being immersed in the earlier picture.

The plot could best be called minimalist. Nine years ago, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) bid each other an emotional farewell after having spent an intensely romantic day in Vienna. They promised to meet six months later. The rendezvous never occurred. Now, Jessie has recorded a slightly fictionalized account of his encounter with Celine in the book, This Time, and he is on the European leg of a book-signing tour. While in a small shop in Paris, he once again encounters Celine, and, for both of them, the feelings come rushing back.

Before Sunset unspools in real time. Jesse has about 60 minutes before he must leave for the airport to catch a flight home, and he intends to spend every moment in Celine's company. Linklater's approach to their interaction is flawless. At first, their conversation is filled with awkward pauses and too-long silences. Gradually, as they again become comfortable with one another, the dialogue flows more naturally and the physical space between them narrows. We feel the unspoken tension as they try to break through a barricade and recapture at least a part of what they once had.

The movie is a love story (or, to be precise, the continuation of a love story), but it's more about regrets than romance. Jesse and Celine's story is one of lost opportunities. It makes us ponder whether there is such a thing as a "soul mate," and how easily we settle for something that fulfills only a portion of our dreams (not just in the person we choose to spend our lives with, but in other choices as well). As the two wend their way through Paris, they gradually break down barriers. But, even more than in the first film, time is their enemy. Instead of having one night, they have only one hour.

It turns out that the night of June 15-16, 1994 and the missed meeting of December 16 has left an indelible mark on them both. Jesse's book is a testament to his obsession, and, even though he is married, he confesses that, even on his wedding day, he thought of Celine. And, although Celine has not penned a novel, she has written a deeply personal song about their one-night stand. If either has doubts about how the other feels, they are quickly allayed. Body language and an underlying longing in their words (rather than the words themselves) profess an urgency that intimidates them.

The topics of conversation, which range from the mundane (politics, having a meaningful job, and the nature of memory) to the intimate (sex), are not as interesting as they were in the first movie, but what fascinates in the interaction between Jesse and Celine is observing the way they react to each other - how much of themselves they choose to hold back and how much they elect to reveal. When the movie is over, you may not remember much of what they said, but you will remember how they said it.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are as much perfect fits for these characters as they were nine years ago. This is the best kind of acting, because it's so natural and unforced that it seems real. Delpy is as radiant as ever, and Hawk has rarely been more self-assured. Likewise, there's a sense of improvisation about how the lines are delivered, even though all of the dialogue was scripted (Hawk and Delpy share the screenwriting credit with Linklater, indicating that they were heavily involved in crafting what their characters say). Jesse and Celine are the same people from Before Sunrise, but with nine years of wear and tear on their bodies and souls. They are more cynical. For Celine, while the light of idealism still burns bright, her optimism has withered. A failing marriage and fatherhood have colored Jesse's view of life.

Watching Before Sunset isn't like watching most movies. This is an almost interactive experience. We feel like we're spending time in the characters' company. We're in the moment with them. This is our third opportunity to peer into their lives. (They also appeared in a segment of Linklater's animated Waking Life.) The director has expressed the desire to visit them once again, but, if he never gets around to it, at least he has given us an ending that is equally more and less tantalizing than the conclusion of Before Sunrise. If I had to choose between the two movies, I would admit that the first film is the stronger of the two, but Before Sunset is a worthy follow-up, and a must-see motion picture for those who appreciate this kind of story. In the midst of summer's cinematic thunder and lightning, this is a rare moment of tranquility.

Before Sunset (United States, 2004)

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Cinematography: Lee Daniel
Music: Julie Delpy
U.S. Distributor: Warner Independent
Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2004-07-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1