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Before Sunset (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Before Sunset

Before Sunset


Starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Vernon Dobtcheff, Louise Lemoine Torres, Rodolphe Pauly, Mariane Plasteig, Diabolo, Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet.

Screenplay by Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

Directed by Richard Linklater.

Distributed by Castle Rock Entertainment/Warner Independent Pictures.  80 minutes.  Rated R.

“Think of it like this.  Jump ahead ten, twenty years.  And you’re married.  Your marriage just doesn’t have that same energy anymore.  You start to blame your husband.  You start to think of all the guys you’ve met and all the ones you’ve never pursued and how things might have been different if you’d just picked up with one of them.  Well, I’m one of those guys.  That’s me.”

With that smooth line of reasoning, a handsome American back-packer named Jesse talked a beautiful French student named Celine into getting off the train with him in Vienna.  He had to catch a plane for the US at nine the next morning, so they end up spending the night walking around the city, talking about life and feelings and falling in love.

This was nine years ago, and the movie was Before Sunrise.  The film is still one of my favorite films.  It was critically acclaimed, though no real box office powerhouse.  Still, the cult fans of the movie were passionate about it.  At the end of Before Sunrise, Celine and Jesse agree to meet each other in Vienna in six months.  Fans of the movie figured they would never know if the couple ever connected.

Thankfully, we finally get to find out.  Now we jump ahead nine years.  Before Sunset is a sequel which picks up the story in the current day.  It turns out the couple never did have that meeting.  (I hope it isn’t giving away too much to tell that one of them showed up, and one didn’t.)  Time has passed and Jesse has gotten married and become a somewhat successful novelist.  But they never forgot each other.  He has written a book based on the couple’s night together.  In Paris on a book tour, Celine comes to see him speak.  Afterwards, he has to catch a plane in two hours.  They walk together and talk, trying to decide if what they had on that day long ago was just an illusion, or if the other was the one that got away in their life.

That is pretty much it as far as the plot goes, and yet this movie is much more interesting than any of the high concept action films that have been littering the multiplexes this summer.  Because Before Sunset is actually about something that matters.  It is about life and missed opportunities and second chances.  It may not have any violence, and any sex is just discussed, but it is still a stunning piece of filmmaking.

In fact, hard as it is to believe, Before Sunset is an even better film than its predecessor.  The film has more experience, more gravity and more realism.  In fact, if there is a better movie made this year, I will be shocked.  A nice touch, one that is true to life but not necessarily to sequels, is that the main characters have changed.  Jesse and Celine have been molded by the experiences of the past decade.  In Vienna, they were relatively carefree, somewhat romantic (or naive) and life was full of possibilities.

While they are now only thirty-two, not old by any stretch of the imagination, they have become hardened.  They realize that they have certain responsibilities, certain limitations in life that they never expected.

The renewal of their relationship comes about in a wonderfully natural way.  At first the conversation is a little awkward.  However, as they get more comfortable, the conversation becomes astonishingly spontaneous.  Then it becomes confessional.  Finally raw emotions start to surface.

Jesse married his college sweetheart just because he got her pregnant.  They did it because it was the expected thing to do.  Now he loves his son but barely knows his wife.  They really have nothing in common other than child-rearing.  In fact, he describes his relationship with her as running a day-care facility with an old girlfriend.  He tells Celine that the time leading up to his marriage, he was thinking of her, not his wife.  In fact, one time right before the wedding, he thought that he may have seen Celine going into a deli on 13th and Broadway in New York.  It turns out that at the time she lived only two blocks away, so maybe he did.

Celine is working as an activist, helping the poor and the disenfranchised.  She feels powerless, though, like she is going through the motions and not really helping.  She has had a series of bad relationships, but it seems she has always kept men somewhat at arms length.  It also seems that she has, for better or worse, always held her memory of Vienna as a ruler for men to measure up to.  Needless to say, no one has come close, so she has eventually shut herself off from the possibility of true love.

Even assumptions that the audience made about the night in Vienna are turned on their heads.  For example, I’ve gone nine years believing that the two did not have sex on that magic night, but in the new film it turns out that they apparently did.  (I say apparently, because through the fuzz of years of memory and romanticism, he insists they did and she at first denies it, then acknowledges he may be right.)

All of this is done against the clock.  Always just slightly out of the picture is the driver whose job get Jesse to the airport… essentially separate them yet again.

Hawke and Delpy are spectacularly natural in these roles.  Not one moment feels staged or acted, which is quite amazing when you consider that most of this film is done in long takes on the streets of Paris.  It’s hard enough to pull off a character with lots of quick cuts.  This kind of sustained quality is a small miracle.  Delpy is also a surprisingly good singer, doing one song on camera and two others in the film soundtrack.

There are many quick character moments, like one scene towards the end when Hawke is telling some particularly personal information in the back of the limo and Delpy reaches out to touch him, but pulls back at the last moment.  Because of this type of intimacy, at the end of the film, you truly feel that you have gotten to know these two people, and you desperately care what will happen to them.

In the end, the film closes on a somewhat ambiguous note, just as the first one did.  However, there is good reason to believe that the future looks brighter for the two.  I just hope we don’t have to wait another nine years to find out.  (7/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 2, 2004.

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