Austin-based indie director Richard Linklater made an early splash with films that for all their goofy and slightly self-aware charms nonetheless proved to be insightful forays into the experiences of young adults. Slackers shed light on Austin's perpetually moody Gen-Xers; the various strata of 1970s teens were affectionately depicted in Dazed and Confused; and in 1995, Linklater surprised and charmed audiences with his third feature, the romantic comedy Before Sunrise, featuring that reliable chestnut, the American abroad.
In Sunrise, twentysomething Jesse (Ethan Hawke), bumming about Europe after a break-up, meets French college student Celine (Julie Delpy) on the train to Vienna. On impulse, Jesse convinces Celine to detrain with him, and the two spend the afternoon and subsequent evening, enjoyably killing time until Jesse's plane leaves in the morning. Enraptured with each other and with their night together, they part with promises to meet again in six months time.
Needless to say, they don't meet again until now, nine years later, in Linklater's sequel Before Sunset, with both Hawke and Delpy reprising their roles. It's an organic follow-up: Jesse, who has written a novel based on that singular night in Vienna, is in Paris on a book tour. Celine, who lives in Paris, sees the notice of his reading, and turns up at the bookstore to say hello. Jesse has an hour or so before he must leave for the airport -- and they set off for a cup of coffee and a chance to catch up.
Delpy is still wistfully beautiful, and she strides about her hometown with an easy cosmopolitan confidence. Hawke has shed some of his youthful cuteness; his eyes seem deeper-set, his cheeks hollower, his hair less a fashion statement than a messy fact of life.
Sunrise was unapologetically dialogue-driven, and Sunset is even more so (Hawke and Delpy are listed as co-screenwriters with Linklater). This film, shot in real-time (an easy-going 80 minutes), forgoes the carefully placed narrative hooks of the earlier feature: Jesse and Celine simply walk and talk, while Linklater employs mostly long shots, framing the couple for minutes at a time.
Each is as loquacious as ever, but there's a reserve -- what of that night nine years ago? Who will cop to what it really meant? Its memory is the invisible third wheel. As the light banter warms their reunion, the past tumbles out, and the film's second half is its most satisfying, as remembrances are traded, embellished and dissected for meaning. Before Sunset has more depth than its predecessor and mines darker material. To say any more would be spoiling the film's slowly revealed pleasures.
At the end of Sunrise, Jesse and Celine had left their future to the vagaries of fate with a romantic gesture (let's not exchange telephone numbers, but meet here again in six months) that appeared to be the mature way of preserving the specialness of the night, but ultimately revealed a naïve capriciousness that no seasoned lovers would chance. In Sunset, Celine remarks that now she realizes one doesn't actually meet many wonderfully compatible people in life, certainly not as many as she thought nine years ago she might.
Such retrospection about romantic kismet may also be read as a self-referential comment from Linklater. In Sunrise, Linklater was clearly enamored of the pure romance of the encounter -- ironically the sort of fantasy most of us have internalized from decades of sentimental films. He created slightly fanciful encounters for the pair -- the cemetery of the unknown dead, the itinerant poet who just happened to write a verse worth keeping, a first kiss atop a Ferris wheel -- and favored all the dreamy light he could muster. Today, Linklater's nine years older too, and when Jesse and Celine apologize for acting like sentimental fools back in Vienna, a viewer can discern an echo of Linklater's "me too."
Because if Sunrise seemed perfectly timed to the exuberance and optimism of the mid-'90s, then Sunset is perfectly pitched to appeal to an older tribe of romantics, those who temper any surrender to hearts-and-flowers with real-world wariness. Sunrise was consistently charming, and at the end of its magical night, it was designed to stir hope for the fantastical happily-ever-after ending the story ached for.
Sunset's moments are quieter and feel less scripted, but are ultimately more satisfying, as Jesse and Celine reflect on their previous encounter to assess how their lives truly are -- lives now marked by disappointments and ordered by a maturity that is heavy with resignation. They have passed from their youth with all its open promise, and entered that much longer stage of life, in which one still looks forward, but never without also looking back.
And yet, when the film's ending comes -- rather unexpectedly, yet in a perfect, and perfectly plausible moment -- it so neatly and surprisingly encapsulates the dormant romantic longing, however battered, that still lurks within Jesse and Celine, Linklater and, indeed, even us.