Richard Linklater's Before Sunset is a vibrant emotional epic about a man and a woman talking as they stroll in and out of a cafe, a garden path and a tourist boat during the waning hours of a beautiful Parisian afternoon. Only the physical weather is placid. If the co-writer-director, Richard Linklater, could draw a meteorological map of this couple's romantic fluctuations, the screen would ripple with isobars and isotherms and wildly shifting temperatures.
In Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995), Ethan Hawke's Jesse was a twentysomething American rambling through the Continent on a Eurail pass, and Julie Delpy's Celine was a student at the Sorbonne. They met on a train and got off at Vienna and spent the hours before sunrise falling in love while hashing out the meaning of life. Whether they would end up sleeping together (whether they did becomes a comic question in this film) was less important (at least to us) than how they lit up their common space. Hawke and Delpy conjured a nimbus of yearning and delight. With the divine self-consciousness of youth, Jesse and Celine recognized the uniqueness of their bond and didn't want to sully it.
Rather than exchange phone numbers and addresses and vow to keep in touch across the Atlantic, they promised to meet each other in Vienna six months hence. Before Sunset takes place nine years, not a half-year later, in Paris, not Vienna. All a reviewer can reveal without diminishing an audence's delight is that they didn't hook up six months after they met back in 1995. Each viewer should have the pleasure of learning why that appointment didn't pan out, and how Jesse and Celine come to trust each other again.
Anyone who fell under the first film's spell immediately hopes that these two get together here. But even those who haven't seen Before Sunrise will feel their gravitational pull. The atmosphere they brew in Before Sunset is more mysterious and changeable than the dizzying effervescence of the first film, their connections more like shocks of recognition than jolts of discovery.
Movies usually pay smeary lip service to intimacy while aiming straight for the glands, the heartstrings or the tear-ducts. But Before Sunset is about rebuilding love by tapping into shared insights and instincts and a joint appetite for magic. Linklater fills this one-night-stand reunion film with a piercing, bittersweet wit. Even when it's silly, it's profound.
Linklater brings subcutaneous suspense to this tale of people who respond urgently to each other before they conventionally know each other. At the first movie's conclusion, Jesse said he felt as if he and Celine were emerging back into "real time." Before Sunset really does unfold in real time - an hour and 20 minutes, starting with Jesse promoting his successful new novel at Shakespeare and Co. when Celine ambles into sight. Jesse's flight home hangs over their heads the whole time. Like Celine and Jesse, a viewer wonders from the start whether they can regain their rapport while playing beat the clock.
They do, and how that affinity takes new form and where it leads are matters of constant surprise. The movie depicts the jarring yet still hopeful experience of facing an erotic ideal when he or she suddenly becomes real. Jesse and Celine have followed opposite trajectories, even though they've never stopped thinking of each other. Celine is an environmental activist with an often-absent war-photojournalist boyfriend. Jesse is more in love with his 4-year-old son than with his schoolteacher wife. He's become an acclaimed fiction writer, but the cheery bio on his book-flap masks his true unhappiness. And reading his novel has ignited raw dissatisfactions in Celine about her loss of amorous optimism. Their conversations have the rhythms and the rippling undercurrents of colloquial, contemporary poetry. The characters' clashing notions of public and private nobility and the shape of the world weave in and out of their flirtatious feints and parries.
Near the beginning, Jesse muses to reporters about writing a new novel with a time-folding premise; it may sound arbitrary, but it provides the key to the enigmatic alchemy of Before Sunset. In Jesse's idea for a plot, a man sees his 5-year-old daughter dancing on a table and then flashes to his high-school sweetheart dancing on a car roof. "He knows he is not remembering this dance. He is there - he is there in both moments simultaneously. In fact he pulls away from a kiss with the girlfriend so as not to offend his daughter. Both moments are real, happening together. For a moment all his life is folding in and it's obvious to him that time is a lie."
In Before Sunset, you feel the pastness and presentness of this man and this woman in every gesture, and their aspirations for the future, too. Hawke's more chiseled look fits the hard edges that now surround Jesse's affability. Hawke has become an actor with the dimension and capability to convey passion in thought as well as feeling; Jesse overflows with both.
And Delpy is downright torrential, mastering a verbal rush and a physical lyricism that's all the more expressive because, most of the time, Celine doesn't want to break loose. When Celine moves to caress Jesse - and then pulls back, before he can see her doing it - the instant of non-contact has the impact of a crushing body blow. Before Sunset asks the great pop question, "What becomes of the broken-hearted?" and answers it with scenes of surpassing romantic consolation. It's a perfect date movie for adults.
Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
Directed by Richard Linklater
Released by Warner Independent Pictures
Time 80 minutes
Sun Score ****