Before Sunset
Before Sunset

USA, 2004. Rated R. 80 minutes.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Cinematography: Lee Daniel
Producer: Anne Walker-McBay
Director: Richard Linklater


Grade: B+ Review by Warren Curry

B efore Sunset is possibly the least anticipated sequel in the history of cinema. Its predecessor, 1995's Before Sunrise, drew decent reviews, but did little at the box office, and the film hasn't exactly become a cult favorite since hitting the video store shelves. Not being a fan of Before Sunrise, and generally finding director Richard Linklater's work to be rather hit-or-miss, it was with a certain amount of apprehension that I approached Before Sunset. So imagine my surprise when I emerged from the theater eighty minutes later quite impressed and, dare I say it, moved by this unexpected gem.

Before Sunset succeeds in just about every way Before Sunrise failed. The latter film, chock full of uninteresting situations and inane chatter, could quite easily be subtitled “Ethan Hawke's Annoying Night in Vienna.” The actor's portrayal of Jesse Wallace, an idealistic early twenty-something American traveling across Europe via train, is too grating to withstand for the movie's duration. But Hawke, once the poster boy for bad movies dealing with immediate post-college angst and adventures (see Reality Bites), has evolved into a solid actor, and having now collaborated with Linklater numerous times on small, character-driven films, the two's chemistry is easy to detect. Julie Delpy's magnetic performance as Celine, the young French woman Jesse bonds with for a day, was Before Sunrise's one saving grace. The European actress has carved out a very consistent career, although it's one that has remained surprisingly under the radar in the United States.

In Before Sunset, we meet the same two characters, Jesse and Celine, nine years after they parted ways on a train platform where they promised to meet again six months later. Jesse is now a successful author completing the last leg of a European book tour to promote a novel containing a fictionalized account of the unforgettable night he spent with Celine, a stranger he met on a train, nearly a decade earlier. While answering a final question at a bookstore in Paris, Jesse spies Celine in the back of the room. Jessie immediately approaches the woman, and the two make plans to go for coffee at a nearby café. Although they have a lot of catching up to do, Jesse must be on his way to the airport in a few hours, so as in the first film, time serves as a vast deterrent to a more-than-temporary union.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke chat the day away in Before Sunset.

Jesse and Celine apologize for not fulfilling their promise to meet again in Vienna, and also for not exchanging phone numbers or addresses, although it is soon revealed that Jesse, indeed, did travel to the city for the unrealized encounter. Their conversation also finds them trading good-natured nationalistic jabs, discussing the accuracy of Jesse's book, realizing that they both lived in New York concurrently in the late Nineties, talking about their professions, and swapping stories about their current relationships—Jesse is married with a young son, while Celine, after a series of romantic hardships, is dating a steady boyfriend. As they move from the café to the streets of Paris, to a boat ride on the river Seine, and finally to Celine's apartment, we learn that neither is truly happy with the way their love lives have turned out since their magical day in Vienna. An unexpected second chance to permanently make up for a decade of lost time confronts them.

With only two characters and a lack of a traditional plot, Before Sunset is an actor's playground. Hawke and Delpy effortlessly play off each other, and Linklater gives them an abundance of room to maneuver, often capturing the actors in extremely long takes. The film, however, doesn't feel obviously improvised, as the conversations have a clear focus, and there is a noticeable economy to the dialogue. In a film this talky, not all of the conversations will hold up, of course, but the strong moments clearly overwhelm the sequences that fall short.

The biggest improvement in Before Sunset lies in the simple fact that Jesse and Celine are at a much more interesting place in their lives now than in Before Sunrise. In their early twenties, Celine, and more noticeably Jesse, had experienced little and didn't have much noteworthy to share. Before Sunrise sprouted up at a time when such twenty-something buzzwords as “slacker” and “Gen-X” had become marketing tools, and the film fed into the media-drawn ideal of what it was to be a young adult in the mid Nineties. Beyond its novel concept, the film had little to say—just a trite romantic fantasy, which clearly aspired to be so much more. At the time, it's debatable whether Linklater was a skilled enough director to make a better film than he did, but his work since then (especially the overlooked Tape) has greatly helped pave the way for the success of Before Sunrise.

The ending's ambiguity might leave some feeling short-changed, although it may quite possibly serve as the set-up for a third part in what could be a series of films. I'd have never guessed this going in, but I would welcome the opportunity to see where Jesse and Celine are ten years from now, especially since the film concludes while their respective character arcs are still being developed. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy are obviously passionate about these people they have created, and given that there is an inherent experimentalism to this film, it's to their credit that they have made such a warm, accessible, and inviting movie.

Before Sunrise is the kind of unassuming, realistic, and purely enjoyable romantic film that we don't see nearly often enough. It's sure to catch a lot of people by surprise and is, in my humble opinion, the best work of both Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke's careers.

Review © July 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

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