Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) represent the purest meditation on love’s highs, lows, and emotional sweep that I’ve ever seen committed to celluloid. While one can appreciate Before Sunset without viewing its predecessor, the experience is infinitely more captivating if you’ve watched Before Sunrise first. With these two pictures, Linklater has perfected his cinematic trademark: films set over a single day (or night). Spanning one magical evening in Vienna, Before Sunrise portrays the chance encounter of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), and the rapid poignant and intellectual connection that stems from it. The scenario could be hopelessly melodramatic and formulaic under a pompous director’s hands, but Linklater is selfless—and shrewd—enough to realize that Before Sunrise is about its leads. Consequentially, his camerawork is delicate and focused—no elaborate shots that might draw attention from Celine and Jesse, other than Vienna’s natural beauty. Shot/reverse shot is smoothly utilized, but so are extended takes, the most impressive occurring in a record shop listening booth—as Celine and Jesse silently absorb Kath Bloom’s “Come Here,” the camera gently bobs, almost as if on a mini-wave, capturing the two sneaking glances at each other, then abashedly turning away when they feel the other is looking. The shot lasts for 80 seconds, with that all-too-familiar discomfort of the early stages of a developing crush making it feel like 80 minutes. Prior to this sequence, as Jesse and Celine converse over a stack of records, the Frank Sinatra LP “Now is the Hour” rests in the bottom-right corner of the frame, a tantalizing taste of the hot-blooded karma that’s beginning to unfold. Equally lovely: while on the bus, Jesse reaches to brush a loose strand of Celine’s hair out of her face while she looks away, then rapidly pulls back as she begins to turn. Similar moments abound, the little intricacies that make up everyday life and courtships; it’s telling that Celine and Jesse don’t ask for each other’s names until after a good ten minutes of talking, and they’re not mentioned again until twenty minutes into Before Sunset. Linklater hasn’t crafted a detached portrait of a unique couple: he’s painting a masterful examination of human nature, of that relationship we all want, but too often sadly see slip away, following it with our eyes and memory.
Only a few moments after the opening credits begin, Celine and Jesse meet on a train, and begin to talk. And talk, and talk, and talk—if you’re a manly man who wants rifles and flowing-back hair in your movies, Before Sunrise isn’t for you. What’s so instantly gripping is how natural the chitchat is from the start. To those who haven’t experienced an intense, personal connection themselves, it may seem like unnecessary mumbo-jumbo: indeed, Linklater has been known to wax philosophical for long stretches (Waking Life). Many of the conversation pieces are standard: schooling, family, sex. Others are more specific—astronomy, poetry, each other. Yet, regardless of topic, the dialogue is stunningly authentic. It’s easy to connect to Jesse, Celine, or some odd combination of the two, as their exchanges are so easy, their personalities so layered and rich. Those who seem to greatly prefer Before Sunset to its predecessor for its ‘increased maturity’ are dismissing the fact that our heroes in Before Sunrise are nine years younger! At age 23, they’re whimsical, hopeful, and rash. They act on instinct rather than caution, the heart rather than the head. While Jesse and Celine are indeed older & wiser by the time Before Sunset rolls around, it strikes me as an astonishing display of natural progression by Linklater: combined, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset total just three hours, yet by the time Before Sunset comes
to a close, it feels like 180 minutes of self-reflection—pasts, present, and future—while we look into a full-length mirror.
When Jesse initially convinces Celine to get off the train with him in Before Sunrise, he does so by saying:
Jump ahead 10, 20 years, okay? And you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to, you know? You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you met in you lifeand what might’ve happened, if you’d picked up with one of them. Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me. So think of this as time travelfrom then to now to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boringand you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.
With that quote in mind, we fast-forward to Before Sunset, Linklater’s magnum opus. Considering how Before Sunrise ends—ambiguous and wistful, yet hopeful—it would seem that the sequel had all the makings for a disaster. Luckily, Linklater, who wrote the script with Hawke and Delpy, took the opposite tack from most directors: instead of succumbing to sequel-itis, that is, handing off the franchise to some novice, he huddled with his stars and became even more hands-on. The trio would sit in one of their rooms, at the computer, and talk, laugh, and brainstorm. Whenever an idea would pop up, they’d jot it down. Ironically, as freewheeling and easy as the script seems, Linklater has noted that it’s the most firm he’s ever worked with—to successfully execute the extended takes, every step had to be plotted out. Before Sunset takes place in Paris—Celine’s hometown—during the final step of Jesse’s book tour, a book he wrote about their evening together nine years ago. Reunited in the Shakespeare & Co. book store during Jesse’s Q & A session, they walk around the city for eighty minutes or so, revisiting their enchanting night, catching up on current events, and sharing revelations. When it’s revealed that Jesse is now married with a 4-year old son, it’s both amusing and telling that Jesse responds to Celine’s inquiries with, “yeah…he’s really great.” Not a mention of his wife, and indeed, their discovery of the impact June 16th, 1994 had on their lives—and continues to have—is swift and powerful. The final twenty-five minutes of Before Sunset, beginning with excruciatingly honest admissions from both parties in the backseat of Jesse’s limousine (it includes a moment that mirrors one in Before Sunrise; here, it’s Celine reaching to stroke the back of Jesse’s hair, then pulling away…positively chilling in its representation of conflicting and tortured emotions), and concluding with a perfectly vague yet optimistic finale, are the best moments of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. And to think, Jesse’s quote from nine years ago was on the moneyonly, by getting off that train, Celine was doing an equally great favor to him.
Because Before Sunset is shot in real time, there’s an added sense of urgency in Jesse & Celine’s conversations—it’s evident they feel the burden of sorting out how strong their feelings remain, even after nine years without contact. They discover that Jesse’s a published author, Celine works for a French Greenpeace equivalent, and most importantly, that their electric, magical bond is as strong as ever. Picking up where they left off in Vienna—even though their planned reunion on December 16th, 1994 didn’t pan out, owing to the death of Celine’s grandmother—Jesse and Celine race the clock to figure out what’s up. Appropriately, Jesse is initially far more open about his feelings, how much he regrets their decision to avoid exchanging numbers or contact information—it would have led to a “slow fade,” apparently—and how he views their reuniting as fate. It’s evident that Celine feels the same, but her feminine instincts keep her walls up until they collapse in the car sequence. What’s to come in their future? It’s difficult to fully know, and therein lies Before Sunset’s true brilliance—when it concludes, we recognize the genius of the final shot, yet nothing makes us angrier than our doubts about whether or not we’ll ever see Celine and Jesse again.
As controlled as Before Sunrise’s camera movements were, Before Sunset’s are even more sublime. Linklater’s direction is completely invisible here: long, graceful tracking shots sweep through Paris for several minutes at a time, cloaked beneath the hypnotic banter of two people tenderly investigating their hearts and potential destiny. Delpy’s combination of intellect, charm, beautiful smile, and worldly understanding make her the sexiest screen presence of the past ten years, while Hawke’s boyish bravado and wordy takes on the universe makes him the perfect complement. I can’t fathom anyone else in the roles. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset represent a pinnacle in romance cinema, the peak of an auteur’s illustrious career (as excellent as Dazed and Confused and School of Rock may be, they have nothing on these), and the best pictures of their respective years. For a romantic, for anyone who’s loved, for anyone who’s felt like they left a connection somewhere in the dust, few movies offer such an orgasmic, natural high.
Before Sunrise: 97/100
Before Sunset: 97/100