Before Sunset

At the end of the small, enchanting Before Sunrise (1995), Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who have randomly met and had one of those long, lyrical nights of talk and love, promise each other that they will meet back in Vienna in six months. The follow-up film, Before Sunset, will tell you whether they did or didn’t meet up, but far more important is who they became. The Before films, as they will probably come to be called, were both directed by Richard Linklater, an amiably and gently experimental filmmaker who specializes in small moments that reveal more than most big-budget Hollywood movies do. Linklater was 34 when he made the first film, 43 when he shot the second. He was already pretty mature and smart about relationships nine years ago, but Before Sunset shows an even deeper maturation.

Jesse, it turns out, is a published novelist; his book This Time, based on his own experiences in the first film, has come out to acclaim and decent sales (probably a warmer reception than Ethan Hawke’s own stabs at fiction have gotten). Concluding a reading and Q&A at a Paris bookshop, Jesse spots a familiar face across the room — Celine, who has come to listen and who, it so happens, has read the book and approves. “I don’t usually like romantic stuff,” she says, “but, um … it was well-written, though!” Almost immediately, they fall back into their old verbal rhythms from nine years ago. They enjoy each other’s company, but something is eating at both of them. Nine years have taken a toll; they’ve lived a lot of life since they were moonstruck 22-year-olds on holiday in Vienna, and they are different people now. Their reunion brings this home rather painfully.

Celine works as a political activist, and her more relevant life (in Jesse’s view) puts his comfortable novelist’s life to shame. She can’t keep a boyfriend; he is married with a son, and we learn, a little conveniently, that he isn’t terribly fulfilled in the marriage. But the question in Before Sunset is not whether Jesse and Celine will get back together; as in the first film, Linklater is much more interested in how the two relate to life now, which areas of their soul have been toughened up and which have remained soft and vulnerable. These films are too stubbornly garrulous and too probing to settle for storybook romance. Before Sunset is like revisiting an old favorite novel in which, unbeknownst to you, a new epilogue has been added. We’re more than happy to hear Jesse and Celine talking again.

The pair wander around Paris, parrying on such topics as sex, politics, and expectations of life. Anyone expecting a conventional plot, as some people at the screening I attended apparently were, will grow restless: Linklater gives you the moments that happen when other movies aren’t looking. Before Sunrise, filmed when both Hawke and Delpy had a little more meat on their bones, was a delicate ode to the passions of mind and heart. Hawke and Delpy look skinnier here (particularly Hawke, who borders on gaunt), as if the indulgences of their student years had been carved away. They don’t act here so much as exist within the characters they have created. The movie is smoothly filmed in “real time,” following the two through talk and silence, yet never dragging.

Before Sunset is a gemlike minimalist triumph — deeper and more provocative than its predecessor, which had the questions of youth on its mind. The new film has no answers, and suggests that questioning minds will never stop. I have to agree with the many fans of both films: These two flawlessly shaped movies are sufficient for me, but the prospect of Jesse and Celine running across each other again in 2013 is undeniably alluring (as long as the entire creative team returns). Linklater could have an art-house franchise here comparable to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy or François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series. If he’s satisfied with these bookend Sunrise/Sunset films, though, so am I.

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