Dir: Richard Linklater. USA. 2004. 82 mins.
The sequel to Richard Linklater's brief encounter movie Before Sunrise is utterly charming, and has a light but not superficial touch that is all too rare in contemporary boy-meets-girl flicks. Virtually plotless, it is (like many of Linklater's films) a wordy trip which takes place in an even briefer timespan than the first (that was twelve hours in Vienna, this is around four in Paris). And with so little going on, it is a film that craves our indulgence. But only the most cynical are likely to withhold it.
Part of the pleasure is in the casting: Before Sunset brings us not only the long-awaited reunion of Jesse and Celine nine years after their brief, intense and unresolved Viennese fling, but also the long-awaited reunion of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (their pairing in Linklater's animated mindgame Waking Life in 2001 was only the briefest of tasters). And although neither are A-list actors, they will strike chords with smart urban audiences, who will enjoy the interplay between actor and actress as much as that between character and character.
The knowledge that Delpy and Hawke worked with the director on the script, and that the song she performs in the film comes from her recent album only add to this metacinematic frisson. Chances are that, as with its prequel, Before Sunset will perform more strongly in English-language territories: it is not an easy film to dub without killing the nuances of the dialogue.
Though audiences who have seen Before Sunrise will get more out of the sequel, enough is provided, both in verbal reminiscence and in visual flashback, to help first-timers to reconstruct the premise of this second meeting. Nine years before, at the end of the first film, American student Jesse and French student Celine said goodbye in Vienna after an affair that had lasted exactly one night. They promised to meet again in the same city in six months' time.
The sequel opens with an older Jesse in Paris on the first stage of a book tour to promote his first novel. As he answers questions about the book in Shakespeare & Company, the historic bohemian bookstore on Paris's Left Bank, it soon becomes clear that Jesse's novel is a thinly-disguised account of that Viennese affair; and then, in the middle of a reply, he looks up to see Celine standing there. They greet each other, with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment, and because they have so much to say to each other, decide to walk around Paris for the few hours that remain before Jesse has to go to the airport to catch the plane for the next leg of his book tour.
During their stroll, which takes them through cobbled streets, into a Parisian brasserie, along the Promenade Plantee (a railway viaduct converted into a long garden walk), and on a classic bateau mouche trip down the Seine, Celine and Jesse discuss the difference between French and American men, the inexorable decline of one's mental synapses, kids (Jesse is now married, with a son), and whether or not they actually had sex that night in Vienna.
The undertow of that previous encounter makes Before Sunset a richer film than its prequel: it soon becomes clear that Jesse turned up for that appointment six months later but Celine didn't; it also becomes clear that he has spent most of his life since then thinking about those 12 hours. Though some of Delpy's dialogue comes across as a little too written-and-learned, her radiant performance wins us over in the end; and Hawke doesn't appear to be acting at all. There is huge chemistry between the two; but they are kept apart, wary, hesitant and circling, until the end.
Linklater is like a watchmaker studying, in painstaking detail, the mechanism of how two intelligent and articulate people fall in love. It is a risky venture, because such encounters are often so much more interesting for those involved than they are for onlookers. But the dialogue itself carries the plot structure and tension, as in golden-age Eric Rohmer.
There is a certain amount of clever verbal subterfuge on the part of both characters, which is unmasked in a classic 60th-minute crisis point when Celine complains that she is 'emotionally numb' and Jesse reveals that his life is 'twenty-four seven bad'. Cinematographer Lee Daniels tracks the pair in a quiet, observant way as the day fades and the light turns a warm shade of gold, holding out a promise that is confirmed only in the very final frames of the film.
Production co: Detour Filmproduction
International sales: Warner Independent Pictures
Producer: Anne Walker-McBay
Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Cinematography: Lee Daniel
Production design: Marie Trimouille
Editor: Sandra Adair
Music: Julie Delpy
Main cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy