Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise is one of the nineties’ most-loved American indie movies, a freeform conversation piece and romantic comedy for those who don’t usually like that kind of thing. It ended with its young travellers – American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy) parting at a train station in Venice after 12 hours spent slowly falling in love, promising to meet again on the same platform exactly six months later.
Before Sunset picks up the story nine years on. Jesse is now a novelist who has come to Paris to promote his latest book, a fictionalised account of this life-changing encounter. While being interviewed in a bookshop, he spots a familiar figure watching from the side – it’s Celine, who knew that he would be in town and came to say hello. Jesse only has a couple of hours before he needs to be at the airport, so the pair spend it walking through the streets of the city, finding out what has happened to each in the intervening years – and whether either of them actually turned up on that railway platform nearly a decade earlier.
Where Before Sunrise was sweet, funny and filled with youthful excitement, the sequel has a more cynical, almost bitter edge. Both Jesse and Celine’s lives are, on the face of it, going pretty well – he is a successful writer with a wife and young son, she is living a free-spirited life in Paris with a photojournalist boyfriend. But as they talk, the cracks start to show. Jesse married a college sweetheart after she became pregnant, but the love has faded from their relationship – adoration of his son is the only thing that keeps him with her. Conversely, Celine has never made any serious commitment, and has now deliberately chosen a relationship with a man who is barely in the country, such is her disastrous track record with boyfriends. As their 80 minute real-time stroll through Paris’ winding streets continues, talking about not just relationships, but sex, politics, careers and travel, it becomes clear just how much impact they had on one another and how they have occupied each other’s thoughts ever since. Fate transpired to keep them apart on the day they were supposed to meet again; the question now is will either do anything about their unspoken feelings?
Linklater, Delpy and Hawke share a screenplay credit, and although the dialogue is entirely scripted, the collaboration nevertheless produces a sparkling, natural flow of anecdotes and opinions. Hawke and Delpy effortlessly revisit the chemistry they had in Before Sunrise, tempered by a natural trepidation. It’s interesting to see that although they both share similar emotions, Celine is a lot more reluctant than Jesse to show them, going as far as to initially deny that they slept together on their night in Venice. But slowly she opens up, culminating in a beautifully observed moment near the end where she reaches out for Jesse then withdraws her hand before he notices.
Julie Delpy is as radiant as ever, but while she seems to have barely aged, Hawke is more battle-worn, his own much-publicised marriage troubles perhaps informing the path his character took in the intervening years. But their performances are exemplary and Linklater shows impressive technical skill, frequently shooting with a steadicam in lengthy unbroken takes. The ending will infuriate some, but I thought it was perfect, and the only sensible way Linklater could have closed the film. Before Sunset is poetic and haunting, and that rare thing:a sequel made for art and not for money.
Skilled indie director, specialising in dialogue-driven comedy-drama. Linklater's 1989 debut Slacker was an unusual but well-realised portrait of disaffected 20-something life in his home town of Austin, Texas, while many consider Dazed and Confused, his warm but unsentimental snapshot of mid-70s youth culture, to be one of the best teen movies ever made. Linklater's first stab at the mainstream - comedy western The Newton Boys - was a disappointment, but Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, Tape and the animated Waking Life are all intelligent, intriguing pictures.