In 1995, two people met on a train in Europe and spent a whole day and night together wandering Vienna. It was young love, as Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) found through conversation and experience a sudden, intense attraction to one another. They parted as day came and life took them in separate directions, with a tenuous agreement to meet six months later.
Such is the plot of Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunrise, a story that is as much about the mindset of youth as it is about romance or life or any of the other topics it covers in its lengthy conversations between its two leads. There is an arrogance, an eagerness and earnestness that belies characters who are ready to grasp opportunities as they come to them and take wild leaps into the unknown.
Which just underlines the contrasts in Linklaker’s 2004 film Before Sunset. Sunset opens with Jesse in Paris, having written a fictional account of his experiences in the previous film, giving a talk to several reporters in a bookstore. While he’s doing his best to dodge their questions about what happened to the characters in his book, he spots Céline. The two meet again, but he is up against a deadline. He has a plane to catch in little more than an hour. In that hour, they have to do all the catching up of 9 years.
It’s more than a plot device, this hour, but a frame for the entire film. The movie takes place in real time as the pair make their way around Paris. It also reveals an urgency that they didn’t have during their first encounter. Last time they had all the time in the world. Now both of them know better, each moment precious, each question digging deeper to try to get at some need for answers that neither wants to give up to the other.
We’re quickly given the answer to the questions the film opens with. The two didn’t meet up six months after the first film. Jesse made his way back to Vienna, but Céline did not, offering up that her grandmother had just died and prevented her from coming.
The two begin on the common ground of 30-somethings. Jobs, jabs at each other’s quirks and affectations, hesitant questions about relationships. Jesse is married with a young son. Céline has a boyfriend who travels frequently. Neither of them seem happy to admit this, neither seem happy in their situations.
The movie’s framing drives them into the questions of why things turned out the way they did, which quickly give way to regrets as to what might have been. Jesse seems particularly bitter, having made the leap once and coming up empty, settling for something safer and finding it incredibly unfulfilling. Céline seems angry that she had this expectation that the rest of her life would be filled with experiences like the one she had with Jesse. Him coming back just reminds her of a feeling she tried to forget, buried under the excuse of a young woman’s romantic notions.
As time grows short Jesse keeps pushing back the deadline. They hop on a boat, calling his driver to meet them at their next stop. He offers to give Céline a ride home. It’s on their way. He walks her to her apartment, he’ll be right back. He asks her to play him a song, after she mentioned earlier that she played the guitar. Just one, and then he’ll be on his way.
It is so perfect, this series of almost-dodged goodbyes. And each one peels away more of the artifice they build up to the outside world. By the time they’re in the car, Jesse is speaking about dreams he’s had of Céline, waking up tortured by them but unable to confess them to the wife who wakes up next to him. Céline reaches out as he looks the other way, almost about to touch him. She pulls away as he turns back.
As the two climb the staircase to her apartment near the end of the movie they are quiet, simply looking at each other and existing in the same space. There’s no need for words, at that point. Each one knows how the other feels. Each one seems to hang on the unspoken assumptions about to be made when they reach their destination. It’s a beautiful shot, spiraling up the staircase, dreamlike in its length and fluidity.
It’s hard to speak about such an intimate film without breaking its magic. Hawke and Delpy helped write their dialog, pulling experiences from their own lives into these characters, making it as much about them as it is about these fictional people. Their problems and hopes and dreams feel real because they are real. Their exchange feels natural because it is, two people together in Paris speaking exactly how they would speak. And any frustrations of communication, of things left unsaid or half said or even denied outright, are the genuine complications of two people who are too proud and too scared to reach out and create a genuine connection.
There’s a truth to their relationship that I felt far greater than in Before Sunrise, a reality that makes sense. These people feel more real than the near-kids we met a decade earlier. They have more to lose. And it is something akin to a minor miracle to watch them, wiser and more careful, blossom in such a short time to the same magic they had before, fragile without time to strengthen. It all feels so immediate, so new, in a way that film romances so rarely capture.
I find nothing to fault with Before Sunset and much troubling about Before Sunrise, but there’s no doubt that the films belong together. Sunset is about past history, history that we as the audience, peering in on, need to know as well as the characters do. But with that knowledge, the movie takes on a reality with the passage of time that gives them weight that would otherwise not exist.
I give special mention to the ending, which I wouldn’t dare to spoil and would find hard to talk about even if I wanted to. It is so slight, so airy, that it’s barely a thing at all. But it is the perfect denouement of not just the film, but of years of non-resolution. It is among the great endings of film, something I would have no trouble describing as perfect.