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Before Sunset

Richard Linklater, USA, 2004

Rating: 4.1

 

 

Posted: July 26, 2004

By Laurence Station

Richard Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise detailed a 14-hour relationship between two romantically idealistic twenty-somethings. Parting at film's end, American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy) sidestepped the traditional exchanging of addresses or phone numbers in favor of a promise to reunite in Vienna six months later. The film never reveals whether the two lovebirds made good on their vow. Nine years later, however, we have our answer: Jesse and Celine failed to hook up, and subsequently went on with their lives, lamenting what might have been.

Before Sunset isn't so much a sequel to Before Sunrise as it is an opportunity for two people to assess what their lives might have been like had destiny not intervened to keep them apart nearly a decade earlier. (Celine explains that her Grandmother died and she had to go to the funeral.) The film opens in Paris, with Jesse on the last leg of a European book tour, promoting his first novel -- which, coincidentally enough, is inspired by his brief fling with Celine. And guess who shows up at the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop just as his signing comes to close? Why, his muse, of course. Celine and Jesse may both be in their early thirties now, but it's as if a mere six months has passed when they make eye contact. Unfortunately, life isn't quite as simple and carefree as it was when the two initially met. Jesse's got a plane to catch back to the States in a little over an hour. Thus, the time shared together will be brief, and, as filmed by Linklater, occur in real time.

Linklater has always been a director who prefers character-driven naturalism over formulaic plot-based stories. With Before Sunset, he achieves a hand-in-glove synthesis between two interesting characters interacting in an utterly realistic setting. Jesse and Celine are tracked minute by minute, with few cuts and a total disregard for the gaudier tricks of the filmmaking trade. Every piece of music has a purpose, and the hustle and bustle of the Paris streets reveals nary a hint of interference or choreographed contrivance on Linklater's part. The notion of "living in the moment" is artfully expressed and perfectly complements the suggestion that the ideal relationship has no past or future, but merely the present.

Of course, Jesse and Celine have a past together, and convoluted present lives that impact any future plans. And that's where Before Sunset derives its tension. Both are involved in relationships, with the currently Paris-based Celine seeing a photojournalist who travels constantly (which she considers a bonus) and New York resident Jesse married and father to a young son. As the two spend the next hour wandering around Paris, visiting a café and taking a boat ride along the Seine, it's obvious the flame still burns brightly. Ah, but what to do about it? Well, for starters, avoid the issue by talking about everything but their still burning desire for one another. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy collaborated on the script, which makes the dialogue between Jesse and Celine sound believable and unrehearsed, as if we were spying on them rather than watching a staged scene. Hawke and Delpy also have great chemistry, playing off of the paradoxically cynical yet too-giving nature of Jesse's character (he admits to only marrying after learning his girlfriend was pregnant) and the neurotic, petrified-of-commitment Celine (she wants to be loved but left alone, cared for but independent). And even when their conversations veer too far into existential, meaning-of-life territory, the sharp banter between the pair keeps their exchanges from becoming too mannered or stiflingly intellectual.

What really matters to the audience is whether or not Jesse and Celine make good on their promise of nine years earlier and actually stay together this time. Despite the obvious impediments, it's clear these two are dying to know if they can sustain a relationship longer than a day. How Before Sunset resolves this primary concern is the key to the film working or falling totally flat and failing to recapture the breezy magic of the original. In the final scene, in Celine's apartment, with Nina Simone's "Just In Time" playing on the stereo, we get our answer... sort of. Just like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset offers an ambiguous ending that nonetheless feels wholly appropriate and satisfying. So, what becomes of Jesse and Celine? Guess we'll just have to wait until Before Noon or Before Midnight to find out. Based on the first two encounters, it should be well worth the wait.

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