It’s a classic movie buff question. Somewhere, right now, in a bar or a video store or on a ticket holders’ line, someone is struggling to name a great sequel that’s been released in the years since The Godfather, Part Two (1974). In a perfect world, this discussion would end in a half-empty café, with participants singing the praises of the grand and delicate Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater’s present-day return to the couple first seen in the 1995 romance, Before Sunrise.
The sequel opens in the renowned Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co., where first-time novelist Jesse Wallace (Ethan Hawke) is giving a reading. The audience is small, mostly press, and they inquire as to the autobiographical nature of his work. They suspect what viewers of Before Sunrise already know: while traveling on a Eurorail pass nine years ago, Jesse fell in love with Celine (Julie Delpy), and spent one night with her in Vienna before flying home to America the next day. As he answers questions, she stands quietly off to the side until he notices her. They exchange affectionate, uncertain greetings, and again, his travel arrangements impose a time limit: Jesse is scheduled to leave for the airport in little over an hour.
Unlike its predecessor, Before Sunset unfolds in real time. Nearly all of Linklater’s films have been restricted to a single night or day; excepting last year’s crowd-pleasing detour, School of Rock, he’s been working up to this film since his debut, Slacker (1991). The writer/director and his stars (who wrote much of their own dialogue and turn in career-best performances), pay close attention to conversational and emotional nuances. Early on, the talk can be rambling and contradictory, but Hawke and Delpy are good enough to convey to the audience what the characters strain to communicate to, or hide from, each other. Jesse’s impending departure creates real tension, which is further magnified by the film’s sense of place.
Whereas Celine and Jesse were tourists in Vienna, killing time in a church or riding the Ferris wheel seen in 1949’s The Third Man (one of the earlier film’s many unobtrusive allusions), Paris is Celine’s hometown. Here, we are reminded of their separate lives and obligations. Much has occurred since they last met, including a missed reunion appointment in Vienna, as well as marriage and children for one of them. Gone are the colorful poets and gypsy fortunetellers who popped up at regular intervals in Before Sunrise, and gone with them is the youthful ignorance of pain and regret. Most of the Parisians we see are simply going about their own daily routines (smoking, jogging, shopping). The older Jesse and Celine talk to each other almost exclusively, eventually unable to suppress the questions and recriminations they never believed they’d have the chance to voice.
It’s no accident, then, that Before Sunset avoids most expected landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, showcasing instead neighborhood cafés or out-of-the-way gardens. The scene in Shakespeare & Co., where owner Sylvia Beach published the notorious first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, reminds us that Jesse and Celine parted ways in Vienna on Bloomsday, 16 June. (Joyce set his masterpiece on that specific date to commemorate the anniversary of his first date with his wife, Nora.) Thus, Jesse’s defense of autobiographical fiction reads not as an apology for his professed ignorance of conventionally dramatic subjects such as “violence and… political intrigue,” but as an affirmation of Joyce’s great theme — the influence of past experience on human consciousness trying, ironically and heroically, to make sense of the present.
Celine observes, “Memory’s a wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past.” The night in Vienna was a life-changing encounter for both of them, and Before Sunset‘s stunning second half acknowledges the often dire consequences of such a momentous event. Tense undercurrents darken their early flirting and catching up, and rather than provide relief, an unexpectedly sweeping long shot of the pair walking along the Seine presages the conversation’s spiral toward the operatic. By the time Jesse convinces Celine to join him for a boat ride — it’s for tourists, she protests — the real-time structure has put the audience in their position, anxious to ask the big questions, yet dreading what are sure to be difficult, lacerating answers.
Regardless of their faults (if not because of them), viewers want good things for this couple. We might say that they remind us of our friends or of ourselves, and while that may be true, it denies the actors the credit they deserve. Even in such a talky film, their silences are as memorable as the longest monologues: Jesse cringes after an awkward sexual reference lands with a thud; Celine reaches for him as he stares out a car window, recounting a bad dream, but she pulls back, like a skittish animal, as he turns to face her. Their physical eloquence verges on heartbreaking.
Theories of cinematic representational modes are irrelevant when it comes to a film like this. Like novelist Richard Russo, another self-effacing American artist mining the infinite dramatic gradations of so-called “ordinary” lives, Linklater is generous in ways that can cause us to forget how good he really is. Developing the rhythms, evasions, confessions, accusations, and apologies of Jesse and Celine’s conversation in real, mortality-haunted time, Before Sunset captures an articulate naturalism far more difficult to achieve than any CGI shot or Baudrillard-lite philosophy. The film illustrates the beautiful and frustrating complexity of human hearts seeking love and meaning in a life we know to be transient.
John Updike, also a Joyce acolyte and an obsessive chronicler of the fleeting moment, has explained that he revisits the character of Rabbit Angstrom every decade because Rabbit’s perspective grants him “a way in” to complications that may otherwise seem overwhelming. What he sees through Rabbit’s eyes, the writer admits, is often more interesting than what he perceives with his own. His audience aged with Rabbit, and they came to anticipate his regular revelations about the world they lived in. Jesse and Celine strike me as having this kind of potential: Hawke and Delpy have already said that they were interested in doing another sequel because the characters have stayed with them for so many years. To experience love, loss, loneliness, hope, and grief with them as they continue to age would be a source of great delight.