Despite the best efforts of the Hollywood studios to convince us otherwise, Richard Linklater’s quiet 1995 romance Before Sunrise reminded us that two characters engaged in enthusiastic, carpe diem conversation could still command the attention of the modern-day cinemagoer. As if to confirm his championing of dialogue and character over expensive effects and soulless CGI, Linklater has returned to the setting and style of the first film with its sequel, Before Sunset – a film full of fireworks, but with nary an explosion in sight.
‘Before Sunrise’ introduced viewers to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), two young travelers who meet on a Vienna-bound train. He was an American exploring Europe. She was a graduate student returning to Paris following a holiday break. When their initial conversation fuelled a sexy chemistry, Jesse persuaded Celine to exit the train and wander the streets of Vienna all night, before his flight to the States arrived at dawn. That was it for plot, but Linklater’s dialogue sparked and pulsated like a disco lighting rig. We wanted these two appealing soul-searchers to get together, and there was an inherent tension in the fact that Jesse was mere hours away from leaving the country. After a night of dazzling talk, the couple promised to meet again in six months. Then both potential soul mates were whisked away to their own separate worlds (only to reunite briefly in a scene from ‘Waking Life,’ Linklater’s dreamy, animated thought-piece from 2001).
The sequel picks up nine years later. One of the many pleasures of Linklater’s approach is his gradual disclosure of details. Jesse is seen promoting a novel in Paris. Is he married? Did he ever return to France six months following his one-night relationship with Celine? The director eventually fills in these voids, but meanwhile, he relies on dialogue to create suspense and curiosity. Even the book-signing session attended by Hawke’s bestselling author is fleshed out and not just a contrived setup. ‘We see the world through our own tiny keyhole,’ Jesse explains, fielding questions from the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore hosting his appearance.
It becomes clear that his novel concerns the night he spent with Celine so long ago. ‘The book ends on a ambiguous note,’ says a French journalist. ‘Do they get together again?’ Jesse responds that the outcome depends on whether ‘you’re a romantic or a cynic.’ In the nine years that have passed since ‘Before Sunrise, which has Jesse become?
The answer lies with the presence that quickly distracts him from outside the bookstore’s window. It’s Celine, whom the author quickly greets with an awkward kiss and some nervous laughter. Now residing in Paris, she has seen his name on the bookstore calendar. Meanwhile, she admits to having read the novel. ‘It was vaguely familiar,’ she says of the subject matter, smirking sarcastically.
And from there, the two gabbers are suddenly picking up where they left off in the first film, haunting cafes and ferry boats as they catch up on a decade’s worth of triumphs, disappointments, and questions. Hawke is giddy and optimistic in his role, a positive man who feels that the world has improved since their last visit together. Delpy, having grown into an environmental activist, is more cynical. Meanwhile, there’s poignancy in the older, wiser appearances of both stars. Hawke appears dapper and settled in. Delpy is more slim and lanky than before. When Jesse comments that Celine has lost weight, she shoots back, ‘Did you think I was a fatty before? A fat French girl?’
They examine world violence, religion, and self-fulfillment. Sex and marriage are touched on. Through it all, Linklater reminds us of the wonder and mystery inherent in simple human interaction. All the big issues are here, wrapped in a deceptively simple package, but the film remains mesmerizing all the way to the last frame. Without spoiling the final outcome, I’ll borrow a comment voiced by another viewer while leaving the theatre: ‘It surprises me that an American would direct that movie.’ Let’s hope Richard Linklater keeps on surprising us.