[Editor’s note: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are a pair of films done so delicately and perfectly. They must be watched sequentially, preferably back-to-back, with an open mind. This review will spoil the surprise.]
Before Sunrise (1994) follows a serendipitous night of two young people, adventurous American backpacker Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a headstrong but demure French girl, Celine (Julie Delpy) who happen to meet on a train in Vienna. Celine is en route to Paris and Jesse is headed home to the States. But first, they delay. They have a conversation that takes them on a winding trip around the city, talking and exploring and sharing everything the way that only two strangers can. They both know they are from different worlds and can’t be together, yet don’t want the night to end. Instead of exchanging numbers (for fear of things “fizzling out”), the two part ways after agreeing to meet each other at the train station in six months. The movie’s ending leaves things open ended for the viewer to imagine. Delpy is effervescent as Celine and Hawke is earnest as a wholesome young boy from Texas. They have incredible chemistry onscreen and their conversations are riveting and authentic. The entire movie consists of these two actors, talking in every scene, very little action and the city of Vienna as a backdrop as the only notable change; it’s all done on a rather linear time frame. And yet Before Sunrise succeeds on every level on which a film can succeed.
Flash forward nine years and you have Before Sunset (2004), the beautiful sequel. Jesse, now joylessly married and with a four year-old son, has written a bestselling book inspired by his chance meeting with Celine, and is on a book tour in Paris. Celine is now working for Greencross and has a mostly absent photographer boyfriend. Although we soon discover that circumstances prevented their reunion that December nine years before, Jesse and Celine are walking and talking again like no time has passed at all. And yet, so much has happened. Lives have changed, lovers have come and gone, they have matured, moved, married and otherwise transformed. Or have they? Jesse and Celene’s witty yet leisurely conversations pry back superficiality and probe at the surface of what motivates us all. They gently philosophically question their own choices and passions and teasingly hint at the allure of “what might have been.” The binding thread seems to be that their fateful night has shifted their worldview and remained ingrained in them, regardless of the events that have transpired since; simultaneously begging the question: Do we ever really change that much?
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke helped write the screenplay for Before Sunset. It’s easy to see why Delpy was given an Oscar nod for her screenwriting for this film. Onscreen she is charming and magnetic, neurotic and heartbreaking. Set against the luscious backdrop that is Paris, the movie moves along languidly, and yet your heart can’t help but race and wonder: Will they? Oh please, let them be together. The focus isn’t on the romance per se, but more like the delicious longing that comes with unfulfilled desire. The heart of both Sunrise and Sunset is the connection between Jesse and Celine and the genuine truth their easy conversation evokes. How fucking beautiful. We ache for these two to get together sometime, in spite of their obstacles. Marriages, oceans, flights to catch–seem insignificant when you’re talking about fate.
Of course, Before Sunset exercises a great dose of restraint, a sugar-free approach to movie romance if you will. The authenticity of these characters is what makes the film so believable, so worthwhile. Jesse and Celine gently probe viewers to turn inwards and ask themselves about their own memories. (“Memories are great, as long as you don’t have to deal with the past.” –Celine) What about “the one who got away?” Before Sunset more than fulfills the promise made in the first film. It displays characters who have grown substantially and now have remarkably more to say, to each other, about each other, love and life. Juxtaposed by the lovely Paris scenery (Sacre Coeur, the Seine), the film is like an illicit peek into these character’s very private lives. The film ties up with Celine sharing a waltz on her guitar for Jesse in her Paris apartment. Be warned, your heart will catch on the last frame…